Sayen Report: Officer Bloat Creates the Shortage of Captains

July 16, 2000

Comment: #372

Discussion Thread:  #s 23, 90, 91, 137, 144, 173, 206, 208, 212, 221, 238, 282, 285, 336, 342, 344, 345, 353, 365, 366, 367, 368

Attached Figures in Adobe Acrobat PDF Format:

Fig 1-5: A Portrait of Officer Bloat

Fig 6: A Comparison of German Efforts on Eastern Front in WWII to Other Theaters


[1] Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, "Officer Shortage (Inside The Ring)," Washington Times, July 14, 2000. Excerpt Attached.

[2] Major Donald E.Vandergriff, U.S. Army, "," Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, June 1999. Attached.

This is a long message, I urge you to print it out before reading and either print out the attached figures or use your computer to call up them while reading.


How can the Pentagon have an officer shortage and too many officers at the same time?

On the one hand, recent retention statistics tell us the military is desperately short of officers. The shortage of colonels, lieutenant colonels, majors, and captains. is so bad in the Army, for example, that Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, report in Reference 1 the Army is delaying retirements and cutting corners on promotions [see Comment #365]. According to a 14 July 2000 report in USA Today the Navy wants to increase retention its bonuses for pilots from $125,000 (currently for a five year commitment) to $245,000 for a 25-year stint.

On the other hand, easing promotion opportunities, delaying retirements, or bribing people to stay in the military will not fix the officer personnel crisis. In fact, such expediencies might cause even more of our best and brightest junior officers to punch out. The reason: a growing number of junior officers are offended by an inflated rank structure that decreases professionalism, rewards incompetence, creates demeaning busy work, and requires pathological assignment policies to keep the entire bloated system afloat. [see, for example Comment #s: 23, 90, 137, 208, 212, 282, 344, 353, 366, 367]

Or, as one colonel told me a few days ago: "If we put the Pentagon's personnel managers in charge of the Sahara Desert, they would run out of sand in five years."

Let's take a look at the problem of officer bloat. Section II lays out the general trend and introduces you to the adverse effects of increasing bloatation. Section III is a historical overview of how staff functions have multiplied in ground units since World War I. It explains how increasing bloatation [1] slows down OODA loops [combat decision cycles or Observation - Decision - Action Loops, new readers should review Comment #s 199 & 348; OODA loops are also discussed in 93, 216, 252, 317] and [2] creates counter-productive behavior mores that would be more at home in an Ottoman court than on a modern battlefield. Finally, Reference 2 locates the problem of officer bloat within a larger cultural context.


[If you have difficulty viewing the figures embedded in this Comment, please download them in .pdf format: Figures 1-5; Figure 6.]

Figure 1 below portrays the size of America's active military forces from 1900 and 1998 in terms of the number of officers and enlisted men and women. During the Cold War (Korea and Vietnam  excepted) the total size of the active force generally trended downward, but note how the officer corps remained relatively constant, implying the number of officers was growing as a share of the total active force. Figure 2 clarifies this point by showing how that share increased sharply over time. Today, officers in the U.S. military make up about 16 percent of the active force (all services). In contrast, the historical percentages of tactically excellent ground forces (no data for navy and air) have generally been in the range of 4 to 6 percent since the time of the Roman legions.

One reason cited for the upward trend is that the increased technical complexity of U.S. weapons requires a larger of officers to manage them. But this argument does not explain why the officer ratio increased since the end of the Cold War, nor does it explain the long term nature of the trend which, according to the data in Figure 2, began over 80 years ago at the end of World War I.

Another reason cited for the increase in the ratio of officers to enlisted men is the mobilization policy championed by George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in the late 1940s. They argued that the rapid mobilization of WWII was too disruptive, and the U.S. needed a larger standing officer corps in the Cold War to serve as a cadre to lubricate any future mass mobilization. This mobilization theory implied a need to train large numbers of generalist officers by rotating them rapidly through a wide variety of jobs, and it became the premise underpinning officer management practices since WWII. While this theory may have been correct for the early part of the Cold War, it does not explain why the ratio continued to increase during the entire period of the Cold War, no does it explain why the ratio increased after the end of the Cold War.

So the question of why officer bloat exists and is worsening over time is an open question.

Let us now take a brief look at the internal manifestations. Figures 3 and 4 compare how the composition of the officer corps changed as the bloat increased between 1945 and 1997. Figure 3 shows how each officer rank increased (as measured by its percentage of the total active force size) between 1945 and 1997. Figure 4 converts the 1997 percentages into multiples of the 1945 percentage to show what ranks increased the fastest. It shows, for example, that the percentage of colonels in 1997 was 6.4 times higher than it was in 1945. Taken together, Figures 3 and 4 tell us that the bulk of officer bloat has been concentrated in the stupendous growth of the higher ranks (field grade and general officers). Note also, expressed as a percentage of the force, there were fewer lieutenants in 1997 than in 1945 but twice as many captains.

Moreover, Figure 5 suggests insight into why bloatation worsened with the force reductions accompanying the end of the Cold War. Since about 1987, combat forces have decreased by 40 to 50 percent, depending on the mission area, and personnel have shrunk by about 35 percent, but headquarters (where officers are concentrated) decreased by only about 15 percent. The increasing proportion of officers coupled with the downward trend in force size since the early 1950s means that command opportunities have declined over the long term, and command experience has decreased correspondingly, because command tours have become shorter as we shoveled people through platoon and company level commands to feed the voracious appetite for officers on the proliferating variety of staffs.

This evolution naturally pushed decisions up the chain of command to higher ranks and lead to increasing centralization as officers on staffs found it increasingly difficult to justify their existence. Couple that with mobilization-centric personnel policies like the up-or-out promotion system, and you have the ingredients for a risk averse, ticket punching careerist culture, where self interest takes precedence over organizational purpose.

Not surprisingly, younger people, particularly captains, with their futures still before them, are saying "this is BS, I'm outta here!"

Going back to Figure 2, it is clear that the post-WWII personnel mobilization policies and other trends are not the whole story. Note how Figure 2 shows that ratio of officers to enlisted men was relatively constant from 1900 to the end of WWI. Then something happened and it began the rise, which in times of peace, has continued to this day.

What happened at the end of World War I to cause this sudden shift?

I asked my friend LtCol John. J. Sayen, USMCR, who is the author of a forthcoming organizational history of US infantry battalions (including the evolution of staff functions), to explain how he thought structural organizational factors, particularly those affecting the design of the American staff system might have (1) contributed to the bloatation process and (2) how he thought bloatation shaped the effectiveness of combat decision making at the tactical and operational levels of war.

What follows is his analysis of these questions.


I have read with some interest your recent "blasters" about the Army personnel system (especially numbers 365, regarding the captains' exodus; 366, on the personnel system's "death spiral;" and 367, discussing the Tillson Report). While all of these deal with important issues affecting the Army's current personnel crisis (I do not believe that "crisis" is too strong a word to describe it), I think they have still missed some important points. The Army's staff system, and its means of exerting command and control over the handful of tactical combat units that the Army still maintains, should also shoulder a share of the blame.

In a nutshell, the problem is that most Army officers serve on staffs and very few actually command anything. Some of your "blasters" have already mentioned the frustration that many young officers feel about being denied the opportunity to command troops (other than for very brief and infrequent periods). These officers have to spend most their time as glorified clerks on somebody's staff, performing non-military "busy work" (such as building "PowerPoint" slides). They know they are stagnating and feel that the real rewards of being an Army officer are passing them by. Furthermore, the problem is getting steadily worse. Even while the number of operating units is decreasing the number of staffs that command them are increasing not only in numbers but also in their individual size. Furthermore, as your "blasters" have mentioned, the Army regards service on these staffs as so important that it is even drafting newly minted lieutenants into them while frequently leaving the command of tactical platoons to sergeants.

The origins of this depressing situation lie in World War I. Prior to that time the US Army was a small, highly decentralized force, in which most officers held commands and staff officers tended to be the exception. Oddly enough, it was mainly engaged in the sort of warfare we have today. Army units fought irregular forces that tended to operate in small groups and with relatively primitive weapons. Such forces seldom represented an established government or were not backed by any sort of organized economy.

Thus, American troops hunted guerrillas in the Philippines (especially the troublesome Muslims in the southern islands), chased Mexican "banditos," suppressed unruly Chinese, and even broke up Pullman railway strikes.

World War I changed everything. First, the Army underwent a tremendous expansion. In 1917 the Regular Army numbered only 127,600 officers and men. If trained and semi-trained National Guardsmen and reservists are added, the number increases to about 335,000, but this modest force would have to increase to 3.7 million within two years. The officer corps would have to expand even more dramatically. In 1917 the Army had only about 9,000 Regular and National Guard officers. During the war, the Army commissioned 25,000 Regular and National Guard sergeants (thus removing the cream of the NCO corps). However, even after it also commissioned 70,000 professional men (doctors, lawyers, chaplains, accountants, etc.) whose military duties would differ little from their civil ones, the Army still needed at least 96,000 additional officers. Most of the latter were for the combat arms. Few of the men who eventually filled these positions had ever previously so much as contemplated a military career or possessed any qualifications for one other than a college diploma and the ability to pass a physical. After induction, most of these men received only a few weeks of what amounted to glorified recruit training before being asked to lead troops in battle.

Even for officers who were already in the regular Army, World War I was a big challenge. They had to make the large mental transition from the requirements of commanding small and lightly armed units fighting guerrillas or insurgents to those of commanding large and heavily armed units fighting with and against the established armies of Europe. A pre-war second lieutenant with only a few months' active service might quickly find himself made a captain and put in charge of a rifle company that was actually bigger (and more complex) than the battalion he had previously commanded a platoon in. Worse, all of his subordinate officers would be even less qualified than he was. The higher one went up the chain of command the discrepancy between the qualifications of the commander and the requirements of his position tended to become even greater.

For the staffs controlling its larger units, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) adopted a system of organization invented by the French. It consisted in dividing the headquarters up into nominally equal sections, all presided over by a chief of staff. The first, or G-1, section administered personnel. G-2 was for intelligence, G-3 was for operations, G-4 was for supply, and G-5 was for training. In 1918, the G-3 and G-5 sections combined to become the G-3 (operations and training) section, thus completing the evolution of the staff system that we use today.

However, there was one catch. The French had only designed this system for very senior headquarters, primarily armies, and later corps. For lower level tactical units, such staffs were considered excessive. Even divisions did not get them until much later. A battalion commander, for example, had no staff at all except for two lieutenants (one of whom was supposed to be an intelligence officer) who would assist him in any way he saw fit. He could also count on having his logistics handled by an officer attached to him from his parent regiment's supply company. Additionally, he would get a doctor and a few medics from his regimental medical detachment and some communicators from his regimental headquarters company. Overall, the battalion commander was expected to lead his battalion in person and make all his decisions himself, on the spot, and with little or no staff input. He would operate under the control of a regimental commander who had only a few more assistants than he did.

This system worked reasonably well for the French but not for the AEF. The AEF had far too few officers qualified to operate it. Once the shooting started, the shortcomings of the inexperienced and under-qualified Americans became apparent pretty quickly. Although the AEF in France engaged in serious combat for less than seven months, it managed to lose more than 50,000 men killed in action (plus many more dead from disease or accidents) and over 200,000 wounded.

Now one might suppose that the logical solution to the AEF's leadership and command and control problems would be to have better officers next time. If you believe this, however, it may be the reason why you will probably never become a general.

The US Army's solution was not to have better officers but to have MORE officers. This idea derived from the old adage that "two heads are better than one." If officers individually have fewer skills, you can get the same skill set if you add more officers. The way to get more officers was to have more and bigger staffs. This caused the Army by 1921 to extend the French staff system (designed to control corps and armies) down to the BATTALION level. At first the practical effect of this was not too great. The inter-war US Army was so short of officers that few of the new positions could actually be filled. Even when they were filled, most were only authorized junior officers who did not have enough rank to interfere much with company or other subordinate commanders or to block their access to the battalion (or higher) commander for whom they worked. In fact, these staff positions might even have filled a useful role in giving young and inexperienced officers a kind of apprenticeship before they were entrusted them with real responsibilities.

In World War II the system seems to have been moderately successful. At the battalion level, commanders were now lieutenant colonels rather than majors. The Army hoped that an increase in rank might produce an increase in competence. (Under the same theory, the Army later tried to resolve its shortage of competent squad leaders by increasing squad leader rank from sergeant to staff sergeant.) The commander also had a major to be his executive officer and successor, should he become a casualty.

Moreover, after 1918, the Army instituted executive officers at all command levels from the rifle company on up, because it did not trust unit leaders to command the next higher unit. For example, if a company commander became a casualty, the Army did not want a mere platoon commander to succeed him.

Keeping executive officers employed as they waited for the demise of their commander was not always easy. At the battalion level, the executive officer served as de facto S-3. The captain who nominally filled the S-3 position was really the executive officer's assistant. The other staff officers were of much lower rank and importance.

The company commanders still had a good deal of influence, but under the new arrangement, the executive officer stood between them and their battalion commander. However, the staff was still small enough to be easily monitored, and it could process information to assist the battalion commander in making and implementing decisions fairly quickly. Higher headquarters staffs also remained fairly manageable. An infantry regimental staff in 1944, for instance, had only eight officers (including the commander and executive officer), though this did not include a few administrative and logistics types who functioned as regimental staff officers, even though they belonged to the service (former the supply) company. The forward echelon on an Army armored division staff amounted to only 18 officers and warrant officers. Even if the rear echelon is added, the number rose to only 50.

Even so, the US Army could never match the German Army when it came to tactical command and control. With its superior numbers and logistics and its excellent artillery and air support, the US Army could generally win a slow moving battle of attrition. However, it could find itself in trouble if the situation became fluid and if staffs had to be constantly adjusting themselves to rapid changes.

To be sure, there were individual officers like John Wood and George Patton who could manage in these circumstances much better than the rest, but the Army as a whole acted too slowly to accommodate rapid tactical change. As a result the Army suffered remarkably heavy casualties (including expensive and unnecessary tactical reverses, such as when General Maurice Rose's 3rd Armored Division lost its headquarters, and Rose lost his life, to a German counterattack). This was true even during the final weeks of the war, after even the most ill-informed German knew that all was lost and when most Germans could only think of surrendering to the Western allies to avoid capture by the Russians.

At this point, many readers are likely to start turning up their noses at any suggestion that we emulate anything the German Army might have done. They lost two world wars, didn't they? What kind of example is that other than a bad one? Or put another way, our organization and methods must be better because we beat them twice.

First of all it must be said that the German Army's defeat was not primarily the work of US forces. World War I was largely a victory for the British and French armies plus the forces of starvation ultimately resulting from the British Navy's blockade of German ports. The self-sacrifice (actually, suicide) of the Russian Czarist and Provisional Governments to keep German armies tied up in Russia until 1918 was also a far more significant contribution to Allied victory than anything done by the AEF.

In World War II it was mainly the Soviet Army that defeated the German Army. All the efforts of the British, American, and other non-Soviet allied armies (including the much-overrated Yugoslav partisans) amounted to little more than a sideshow that tied up perhaps 10-12% of the German Army's men and resources [Sayen is correct: Figure 6  compares German division-months in combat on the Eastern Front to those in all other theaters for World War II. ].

Also, it is easy to explain Germany's World War II defeat in terms of the allies' in sheer numbers and materiel. Germany was fighting a coalition that (even when German allies are included) had four times the population and more than twice the industrial resources as Germany did.

In addition, Germany was handicapped by a frequently dysfunctional national leadership and by a military procurement system that was, well, like the one the United States has today! (Isn't it crazy how we seem to copy the stupid things our enemies do and not the smart ones?) Though German industry had very advanced technology and very capable scientists and engineers, it was plagued by widespread corruption and inefficiency (never mind the Allied strategic bombing!). It also wasted a lot of its resources pursuing high risk technological "silver bullets" such as "Tiger" tanks, jet bombers, and V-2 (a.k.a. "Scud") missiles that were supposed to compensate for German numerical inferiority at one stroke. Such projects seldom proved to be practical. At the same time the Germans neglected the development of genuinely important weapons like jet fighters until it was too late. Moreover, many of the high-profile weapons they did or tried produce, like the HE-177 heavy bomber, kettenkrad caterpillar-tracked motorcycle, or the infamous 120+ ton 'Mouse' super-tank. These weapons looked impressive on paper but frequently were unreliable and always too expensive to be fielded in decisive quantities. Consequently, may acquisitions decisions only exacerbated the problems they were meant to solve. On the other hand, until 1945, US procurement, invested much more heavily in proven and reliable technologies that offered quantity as well as quality. It only moved into high-risk technology when it was critically important to do so (as with the development of the atom bomb, radar, and the "Ultra" code breaking system).

In the light of these facts, the surprising thing is not that the Germans surrendered in 1945, but that they were not beaten much sooner and much less expensively. On land, the Germans probably killed three or four Allied soldiers for every one of their own men who was killed in action, a pretty remarkable casualty ratio for the losing side! Though the Germans were often guilty of bad strategy and poor industrial management, their trump card was their advantage in tactical and operational skills and in command and control. This brings us back to the main point of this essay.

The biggest reason why the Germans were able to achieve such a high degree of tactical and operational effectiveness lay in the quality of their officer and NCO corps. The secret to this superior quality lay in the fact that the Germans were willing to trade numbers for quality.

All of this should be perfectly logical. If one is willing to have fewer officers then more time and resources can be expended in the training and selection of the ones you have. More officer candidates who prove themselves unsuitable can be rejected.

The objections to this are not only that it is elitist (a serious objection in our "one size fits all" society) but that it offers less redundancies and fewer points of failure.

In other words, if there are only a few officers, the failure of any one of them will have a greater effect, because each bears a much larger share of the total responsibility. In addition, a small officer corps should be much harder to expand in wartime.

Such objections should be easy to refute. In a smaller officer corps it is much easier to get to know the individual members personally and thus be able to determine who is likely to succeed or fail at a particular job or combat task. Also, the inferior mobilization potential of a smaller officer corps should not much of a consideration in the post-Cold War era where national military mobilization on a World War II scale is so unlikely. Even in 1939-40 the Germans achieved a very dramatic expansion of their officer corps without a great decline in quality.

A typical German battalion staff had only four officers. These were the battalion commander, two lieutenant assistants, and the surgeon. If the battalion had a lot of horses it might also have a veterinarian. If it was a Panzer or motorized unit it could have an ordnance and/or a maintenance officer. Command and control, however was centered on just the commander and his two assistants.

Germany's excellent corps of non-commissioned officers was able to shoulder many of the commissioned officers burdens. At the battalion level, German sergeants handled most routine supply and administrative matters. Officers got involved only when they were really needed. Also, a good company first sergeant could easily perform all company executive officer duties (other than that of acting as the company commander's successor) and sergeants also commanded platoons when necessary.

We in the United States also have a strong NCO corps, but we cannot fully utilize it because we have so many officers to find jobs for there are relatively few responsibilities left that we can give to NCOs. This, of course, is one source of NCO frustration and has helped to drive many of our better NCOs out of the service

The advantage this far smaller complement of officers is apparent when viewed through Col. John Boyd's theory of the OODA loop [see Comment #199 ]. It is axiomatic that large staffs function much more slowly than small ones and thus have slower OODA loops. Big staffs take longer to develop a consensus and a common vision of the situation. Much more interaction must occur within them. The excessive organizational layering makes it harder for the commander to monitor the organization's progress and/or efficiency. Incompetents can hide in a large staff much more easily. The result is more internal friction, greater opportunities for misunderstanding, and an increased for lowest common denominator thinking, also known as Groupthink.

Nevertheless the United States has chosen to use large staffs. After World War II, it decided to resolve its tactical shortcomings by evolving even larger staffs.

For example, in order to keep enough majors employed at the battalion level, postwar tables of organization began to call for majors to serve as battalion S-3s as well as executive officers. The Army raised the ranks of the other principal battalion-level staff officers to captains. Although the executive officer was still a major, the S-3 was also a major. Thus the executive officer evolved into a kind of chief of staff while leaving S-3 functions to the S-3. Under the new arrangement, the battalion S-3 acquired another captain to assist him (much as the old captain S-3 had assisted the battalion executive officer) and S-1, S-2, and S-4 officers acquired officer assistants as well. (Ranks and numbers of officers at higher organizational staffs mushroomed in a similar fashion, with a virtual officer explosion taking place at division level and higher.)

Today, an Army or Marine Corps battalion staff has more than a dozen officers (excluding the air liaison officers and forward air controllers in Marine battalions). As in 1921, the initial effect of these changes was not too great, but over time matters changed dramatically as the increasing number of officers created additional work and procedural complexities. The growing officer surplus has had several effects.

First, there were enormously more officers than command billets. In order to give "command time" to as many officers as possible, command tours became very short and most officers could hope for no more than one such tour at each pay grade. Thus, nearly all battalion (and higher) commanders have never commanded at their current levels before and can not stay in these jobs long enough to really learn them.

Second, chief subordinates like to protect commanders from matters they see as not meriting their commander's attention. To this end, executive officers (or chiefs of staff) naturally assume a role similar to that of a court chamberlain or grand vizier who controls access to the monarch.

For the company commanders, the evolution has made access to the battalion 'monarch' much more difficult, because there are now at least two barriers to be overcome. The first barrier is formed by the S-3, who in order to keep himself employed, closely supervises every activity of the company commanders. The battalion executive officer is the second barrier. As is normal in all authoritarian structure, the 'grand vizier' wants to control information the monarch sees, with particular emphasis on protecting him from bad news. The 'monarch' tends naturally to be reluctant to pierce this barrier, lest his own shortcoming be revealed. In such a system, as one moves up the chain of command, the more senior a commander becomes, the more isolated he tends to be from his subordinates. The fact that he does not really know his job or his unit very well (because of short command tours) reinforces his isolation.

Third, isolation also shields the commander from the knowledge that most of his staff is furiously engaged in "make work" activities that most officers resent and which will have little positive impact on the unit's mission.

The Goldwater-Nichols reforms amplified officer bloat in the name of jointness. This legislation added a large number of joint officer billets (particularly at the field grade and general officer level) to the unified command staffs. Moreover, it created additional joint commands. On the other hand, Goldwater-Nichols did not reduce the parallel service staffs. This increased the number of field grade staff billets to such an extent that the mandatory retirement age was increased by two years to meet the demand. The Marine Corps even managed to wangle a dozen extra generals out of the deal, thus giving them the greatest number of general officers in their history.

To break this spiral, we need to get rid of a lot of officers and man the command positions BEFORE the staff positions. The remaining officers would get commands much more often and would stay in them long enough to learn how to be really effective in one of mankind's most demanding jobs. They would discover that they needed a lot less "help" from their staffs for mission accomplishment and their professional skills would develop considerably. The goal would be less "make work" and a lot more work that actually contributes mission accomplishment.

Professionalism in the officer corps is needed now more than ever, because our fighting forces must learn to navigate uncharted waters of Fourth Generation Warfare.


Sayen's analysis tells us that officer bloat is a complex issue with deep roots. As explained MAJ Vandergriff in Reference 2 below, trends like those described by LtCol Sayen, as well as the influence of Marshall/Eisenhower, need to be seen as part of a longer term cultural evolution. He shows how todays culture embodies many outdated prior assumptions and traditions, like the progressive management practices inspired by the reforms of Elihu Root at the beginning of the Twentieth Century or our military's predilection for a Second Generation War of industrial war attrition. Vandergriff's article in Reference 2 is a synopsis of a larger, extremely important report which can be found at the following URL:

The officer retention crisis is caused in part by a bloated officer corps, and that bloat is a part of an evolving culture that is building on and mutating prior assumptions and traditions. Some of those assumptions and traditions lie beneath the surface and act like a hidden guidance and control system, but they are now out of date or have been overtaken by the changing nature of war in the 21st Century.

If the arguments and findings of the Tillson Report [Comment #367], the Vandergriff Report, and the Sayen Report are correct, one part of the solution to the problem of retaining captains is to sharply REDUCE the total size of the officer corps, with particular emphasis on cutting the bloated percentages in the middle and upper grades.

A large reduction in the total number and proportion of officers would eliminate the need to keep the middle and upper grades at bloated levels to maintain promotion throughput throughout the entire system. At the same time, reducing demand would permit the military to make accessions into the officer corps and promotions more competitive.

Increased competition would permit stricter selection standards based on testing one's ability to cope with tactical problems and decision-making problems in rigorous competitions, like free play exercises (in lieu of scripted exercises). A smaller number of more qualified officers would also work naturally to enhance the professionalism and stature of the NCO corps, because officers would no longer be tempted to justify their own existence by pulling decisions up the chain of command, and their increased professionalism would encourage mentoring and build self confidence to delegate of authority and responsibility more freely at the small unit level.

Such changes would also enable officers to remain in command positions for longer periods and thus become more proficient in one of the most demanding professions in the modern world.

Finally keeping officers in command positions for longer periods would build the unit cohesion needed to shape and adapt to the changing conditions of modern warfare.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference 1

Inside The Ring
By Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough
Washington Times July 14, 2000

Officer shortage


"To fix that problem the next major [promotion] board will have a selection rate of 93 percent," an official told us. Gen. Ohle also said he did not believe the quality of officers would decline as a result of the higher selection rate for promotion …

* The Army is extremely short of captains and to solve the problems the service has decided to promote more second lieutenants to first lieutenant and captain at a faster pace …

Also, beginning Oct. 1, all retiring service members must wait six months after submitting a request before leaving.

Reference 2

By Major Donald E.Vandergriff, U.S. Army
Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute
June 1999

The readiness crisis facing all the services has generated a host of solutions: more spare parts, more training, more technology, more pay, more money. We may be missing the forest for the trees, however, by ignoring far more serious problems—a lack of real leadership and a pervasive unwillingness to engage in debate about how U.S. military power is to be used.

On 29 September 1998, the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee there were serious problems with readiness. Congress was shocked! The previous February, these same four-star flag and general officers—the heads of all the services of the U.S. armed services and their 1.4 million men and women—informed Congress that there were no readiness problems. To paraphrase their words, U.S. military forces were as capable as those that fought and won Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991.1

What happened to the U.S. military in these few months? Was it defeated in battle, struck by a plague, or hit by a natural disaster? Or is there a hard truth that declining readiness has been a problem for some time and continues to get worse? Even harder to swallow is the reason behind declining readiness—despite our spending seven times more than any potential opponent.2 It is based on intangibles that many Americans are uncomfortable dealing with—e.g., outdated leadership styles, training, education, and a lack of unit cohesion.

Oddly enough, the current information revolution has exposed the truth. If, during the last few months, the Chiefs of Staff and their aides hustled to find a few culprits behind the "leaks" to the press or to congressional leaders regarding declining readiness, they are going to be disappointed. There are just too many of them to punish. Thousands of middle- and junior-grade officers, NCOs, and troops from all the services have used the new electronic infiltration tool called e-mail, and exposed the denials of declining readiness by senior military leaders. These e-mail infiltrators bombarded not only their superiors (who did not appear to listen), but also their elected officials who, after initially ignoring their pleas, finally had to do something to reply to the flood. The foundation of this readiness tragedy is that it did not occur as a result of defeat on the battlefield—but rather because of the culture embedded in the military.3

During the hearings held by the Senate Armed Services Committee, several reasons for declining readiness were highlighted: lack of spare parts; lack of training time; old equipment wearing out and becoming harder to maintain; high operating tempos that stress out service members and their families; and a pay gap between civilian and military job earnings. Each of these problems reflected a lack of money. Nothing was said about leadership as the cause of declining readiness.4

The Senate Armed Services Committee's reaction to the startling testimony of the Joint Chiefs of Staff epitomizes the problems of the current officer culture, which is based on a tradition of 96 years of management science. Theoretically, this culture molds, shapes, and develops officers under the premise of selfless service. In reality, it advocates the advancement of the individual—for example, recruiting individuals by offering vital skills, frequently moving personnel among units to ensure career progression and equity, and promoting personnel rapidly. This "career management" is done at the expense of the organization, because of the lack of unit cohesion it creates in order to achieve short-term goals.

Our military culture, shaped by its current personnel system, also is based on 200 years of complex evolution and a desire to serve the needs of the individual while providing for an effective defense. Present theories of personnel management arose from the culture of management science introduced by Secretary of War Elihu Root at the beginning of this century. Conventional wisdom of this period held that personal awards through power, financial gain, and rapid promotion are more powerful than rewards from the shared effort of a community or professional enlightenment.5 More significant was the succeeding period. Here, the military was bound by the need to mobilize to fight World War III. Senior leaders such as George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower gave significant testimony leading Congress to pass the Officer Personnel Act of 1947 (OPA 47).6 These two periods witnessed similar themes that still shape today's culture dramatically; both held that careerism was good and that the best would rise to the top. As a result, a conflict between the needs of the individual officer and the words "duty, honor, country" developed.

Yet senior officers continue to state that the U.S. military is effective, and that is the problem. We need to create effective personnel policies and not rely on technology in order to prepare the military for the battlefields of the 21st century. Of course, there are some brilliant men who already understand how to solve our readiness problems—if those who make the decisions would only listen.

The late retired Air Force Colonel John Boyd, one of our most creative military thinkers and theorists, was a self-taught mathematician and aeronautical engineer whose energy maneuverability theories of the 1950s and 1960s revolutionized the design of modern fighter aircraft. Boyd's most important insight was, "Machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds."7 To understand which technologies work on the battlefield, for example, one first must understand how people think and act in the fog, fear, and chaos of combat. Only with such understanding is it possible to design technologies that serve the needs of the people involved. Boyd's focus on people has obvious application to the services' officer personnel systems. Just as technology must serve the service member in combat, so too must the military's structures for selecting, indoctrinating, assigning, and promoting officers serve the service member in combat. Only by understanding the needs and dynamics of the people who serve in a fighting unit is it possible to design a personnel system that advances the organization's combat objectives.

Today, the U.S. military's officer culture has strayed far afield from these common sense ideas. Technology now is an end in itself, not a means to an end. Joint Vision 2010 and similar service literature explicitly state that technology—especially highly complex, expensive technology—will revolutionize the conduct of war.8 Indeed, the notion that machines fight wars and that people are of secondary importance has become so deeply ingrained that the Department of Defense posters commemorating Armed Forces Day over the past four years glorified the nation's defense arsenal rather than the sacrifices of its service members. Even more troubling, the military's personnel system reinforces these misguided priorities and has created an officer culture that is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of the post-Cold War era.

The historical experiences of World War II and the Cold War—and their legacies of attrition-style warfare supported by mass mobilization that have shaped the current officer personnel system and its command structure—are no longer valid. In addition, the U.S. military's outdated personnel system and command structures are reinforced by, and have contributed to, its preoccupation with technology. The current structure actually militates against combat readiness and effectiveness. The military's future effectiveness does not depend upon a technologically driven revolution, but upon a true cultural revolution. The military's doctrine, education system, and the way it accesses, develops, and promotes officers must be revised to elevate military professionalism above competing political and economic concerns. Inevitably, this will require the realization of Boyd's vision and a shift in our leaders' focus from technology to the people who use technology to defend the national interest.

Why Our Officer Culture Is Harmful

Today's officer culture is the product of four overlapping generations: an early tradition of improvisation and the myth of the frontiersman; personnel policies derived from the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century; World Wars I and II; and the obsession with mobilization for World War III. These periods established trends that can be tied to the change in testimony by the service chiefs regarding deteriorating readiness from February to September 1998. The legacies of the first generation have allowed Americans to forget about their military's initial disasters owing to its unpreparedness. The next three generations saw the implementation of policies with good intentions, but these ended up creating unintended negative consequences. These policies include the up-or-out promotion system which is related to a subjective, highly inflated evaluation system. Together, these are used to determine promotions and selections by centralized boards of senior officers who make the decisions based on selection by exception, or by weeding out officers—sometimes on no more than a single negative mark in their service records. These practices also are related to personnel management policies derived from a management practice of trying to give everyone a "fair" chance at critical positions needed for promotion and selection. Finally, when combined with a bloated officer corps at the middle and upper levels, these factors force officers into a few key "jobs" such as command, Pentagon, and Joint Staff time, with little time to learn or gain experience. To the servicemen and women in units, squadrons, or on ships, the process resembles a revolving door. Officers are not allowed to make mistakes or rock the boat without paying for it at the next promotion board. The military has created entire generations of risk-averse officers who see intellectual challenges as threats to their career well-being.

The first generation, which began with the establishment of the Continental Army under George Washington, was shaped by two disparate influences: the aristocratic traditions of the British officer corps and the challenges of the American frontier experience. The continuation of the aristocratic model during the early national period has left the Army and the other services with traditions of anti-intellectualism and anti-professionalism, and a belief that Americans simply can improvise required armed forces during war-time. In addition, with Washington's and succeeding generations, officers' energies were channeled into the pursuit of career advancement. With very little to do during the duty day, and because they were recruited from a relatively broad social base, American officers took matters of rank and promotion seriously. A tradition began of identifying rank as the principal determinant of both status and financial well-being. This later would be labeled as careerism. Despite this, in the period between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, professionalism began to take hold in the form of professional journals and the establishment of military schools.9

The second generation of American warfare began with Secretary of War Elihu Root's attempt to professionalize the Army following General Emory Upton's visit to Germany in 1876, and encompassed the Army's failure to mobilize effectively to fight the Spanish-American War in 1898. The age of Progressivism was sweeping the country. While younger officers embraced professional studies and education in military arts, the more senior officers were shaped largely by the theories of management science involving the bureaucratic organizational model and an education system that followed Cartesian methods of math, which follow a systematic approach to problem solving; i.e, if one simply follows a formula or checklist, the problem will be solved. When applied to the battlefield, Cartesian methods treat the enemy as a nonthinking entity and assume that well-served technology will overcome any opponent. The need to mobilize, train, and ship millions to Europe rapidly for World War I only tightened the second generation's grasp on linear solutions to nonlinear problems.10

The third generation, which began in World War I and continued through Vietnam, was characterized by an authoritarian and centralized command structure. With only a small peacetime officer corps—consisting of a few professionals who understood war—during the interwar period, there was no choice but to choose a top-down style of command in order to execute an attrition-style doctrine, enhanced by technology. The expansionist nature of the military created a doctrine that emphasized firepower. Attrition doctrine—with its industrial-age individual replacement system, supported by the vastness of American industrial might—was assimilated easily by the millions of amateurs the country began to train.11 After World War II, Chief of Staff George Marshall institutionalized the mobilization strategy by convincing Congress to pass OPA 47. The impact of OPA 47 is felt today with a bloated officer corps—in all the services—at the middle and upper grades; the up-or-out promotion system; and the all-or-nothing, 20-year retirement system. These three factors lie behind today's culture, which is characterized by a destructive competitive ethic, constant promotion anxiety, and officers who are risk-averse.12

But when these approaches led to failures in combat, officers did step forward to challenge and reform the culture. The fourth generation encompasses the military's dramatic reforms of the 1970s and 1980s—which affected almost every aspect of the military's operations except its officer personnel system. A new, more maneuver-oriented doctrine called AirLand Battle was adopted by both the Army and Air Force and actually aligned emerging technology with the way the United States fought. Education was improved, while the Army and Marine Corps strove vainly to make a unit-replacement system work within a larger individual personnel system. This dramatic move within the personnel bureaucracy sought to do what history has proven to be a combat multiplier—forming and keeping individuals and leaders together for years by rotating cohesive units in combat. Instead, the personnel system analysts destroyed these programs by applying tangible measures applicable to individuals—such as reenlistment rates and individual weapon qualification—to whole units. Measures that are quite effective in determining the worth of weapon systems failed in quantifying unit personnel systems.13

Ironically, the victories in Panama in 1989 and the Gulf in 1991, and the drawdown of the military afterwards, allowed the military to retain its old culture and diminish the effect of the reforms of the late 1970s and 1980s. While many senior leaders pointed to the downsizing of the early 1990s as a cause for increased careerism, downsizing actually exposed the larger problems that had been covered up because of the plentiful years under President Ronald Reagan. As a result, we have returned to our old friend technology as the solution to all problems.

Keeping the Past

Before Congress addresses readiness by throwing money at the problem, it must insist that the military first reform, reshape, and readjust its officer personnel system. The personnel bureaucracies in the services no doubt will oppose any diminution of its power. The effects of the officer personnel system, including its accession, promotion, and development subsystems, feed and shape the doctrine, acquisition, training, and education that build and maintain a war machine. It has produced a war machine with at least three interrelated consequences that weaken our military's responsiveness and its capacity to fight effectively.

First, it takes a long time for our military to prepare to fight. The United States either must rely on a strategy to buy time, such as using a coalition that is willing to hold and bleed an opponent for months or years (e.g., France and Britain in World War I, or the Soviet Union in World War II), or have an adversary give us an inordinate time to build up and train a force for action (e.g., Iraq before Desert Storm).14

Second, the prescribed preparation period is made longer and more turbulent by the use of a management-driven individual replacement system, rather than the more cohesive unit rotation system (where personnel are kept together and units replace units). This prevents the United States from applying low-cost, yet constant, political and military pressures in contingency situations with an ability to rotate cohesive units that are maintained at high readiness levels.15 Instead, units are stripped of individuals—sometimes from returning units—in order to fill deploying units to authorized levels.16

Finally, once this unwieldy bureaucratic mammoth actually goes to war, it employs a doctrine of centrally controlled firepower that would make World War I British General Douglas Haig and French General Robert Nivelle smile in vindication. The main thought behind U.S. operational art is to throw in the tonnage and push opponents back with a bloody, attrition-driven frontal attack (e.g., it took outside intervention by the Defense Secretary and National Security Advisor to get General Norman Schwartzkopf to plan a "left hook" into Kuwait, rather than a frontal assault up the Wadi al Batin—and still about half the Republican Guard escaped through the open back door).17 It is clear that even as it fights a new, attrition-driven conflict in the Balkans, the U.S. military remains very conservative in its thinking.

The Trend Continues

Our military is fueled by a culture that views argument directed toward higher command as disloyalty. Dr. Williamson Murray, a renowned military historian—in his article, "Military Culture Does Matter"—warns of the dangers inherent in a military culture that discourages free thought. Dr. Murray contends that any military "that remain[s] totally enmeshed in the day-to-day tasks of running [its] administrative business, that ignore[s] history and serious study, and that allows [itself] to believe [its] enemies will possess no asymmetric approaches [is], frankly, headed for defeat."18 Active and retired officers have called attention to the fact that the officer corps discourages academic debate about its decisions concerning doctrine, force structure, and personnel issues. In the foreword of Bob Leonard's book, The Principles of War for the Information Age, Major General Robert H. Scales Jr., Commandant of the U.S. Army War College, scolds the officer corps for its lack of debate. He writes, "Increasingly, our young army officers do not include themselves in the great doctrinal debates, nor are they challenged enough to investigate the principles which form the very basis of our profession." Leonard adds that, "The problem is that [debate] is not rigorous. It has yet to seriously challenge basic beliefs and gut-level issues. Military and civilian leaders are still in their comfort zone concerning the character of future war."19 With these points in mind, generals and civilian leaders should be asking what is causing this aversion to dialogue, and whether it is good for the U.S. military and the country.

Not surprisingly, we are seeing the results of this one-dimensional mindset demonstrated with the continuing air war against Serbia. Historians recall how similar attacks affected the morale strength of their targets in years past. The German V-2 missile attacks on Britain enraged the British. Saddam's scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia enraged Americans. It is unclear at this point whether or not the bombing of Serbia has had any meaningful effect on the Serbians' willingness to resist. Because most of the so-called defense intellectuals do not understand war, the fear of even the smallest number of casualties limits the United States to poor strategic options. Is this because of a lack of confidence in the ability of men to do the job, and a greater faith in machines? If officers within the military—particularly senior officers—cannot debate among themselves, then how can they be expected to tell Congress the truth? If this trend continues, the use of e-mail remains the only way the truth will continue to rise from the ranks to disclose true readiness problems.20

[At the publication date, Major Vandergriff was serving as assistant professor of military science at Duke University, Army ROTC; He is now at Georgetown University]


1. Rick Maze, "Congress hears readiness woes," Army Times, 12 October 1998, p. 4.

2. This includes the United States and its NATO allies, and South Korea divided by a combined dollar value spent by rogue states as North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and possible opponents such as China and the Soviet Union.

3. This can be seen in a number of e-mails that Congressmen, journalists, prominent defense reformists, and senior officers receive. The author daily receives e-mail that concern readiness problems.

4. Discussions with Mr. Franklin "Chuck" Spinney on 8 October 1998. Mr. Spinney is a noted defense analyst who has compiled detailed and accurate data on the cost of the modernization program that is undermining readiness and costing the American taxpayer billions of dollars.

5. A number of works discuss the influence of management science on the officer corps: Andrew J. Bacevich, Jr. "Progressivism, Professionalism, and Reform," Parameters , March 1979, p. 4; Samual P. Hays, "Introduction," in Jerry Isrel, ed., Building the Organizational Society (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1971), p. 3; Jack C. Lane, The Armed Progressive (Novato, CA: Presido Press, 1978), p. 150; Paul Y. Hammond, Organizing for Defense: The American Defense Establishment in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 10; Russel F. Weigley, "Elihu Root Reforms and the Progressive Era," in William Geffen, ed., Command and Commanders in Modern War (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1971), p. 24.

6. U.S. Congress, Officer Personnel Act of 1947 (Congressional Record, 1st Session, July 1947), p. 289.

7. John Boyd, "A Discourse on Winning and Losing," unpublished briefing, August 1987, pp. 5-7. Discussions with Mr. Franklin Spinney.

8. Joint Warfighting Center, Concept for Future Joint Operations: Expanding JV 2010 Ideas (Fort Monroe, VA: U.S. Training and Doctrine Command, 1997), pp. 2 & 13.

9. Faris Kirkland, "The Gap Between Leadership Policy and Practice: A Historical Perspective," Parameters, September 1990, pp. 54-55. Discussions with Dr. Faris Kirkland, 12 April 1998. See also Edward M. Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime 1784-1898 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 61-64, 194-198.

10. James H. Hays, The Evolution of Military Officer Personnel Management Policies: A Preliminary Study with Parallels from Industry (Washington, D.C.: RAND, 1978), pp. 105-114.

11. Kirkland, "The Gap Between Leadership . . . ," pp. 54-55.

12. William Hauser, "Restoring Military Professionalism," (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1985), pp. 1-3.

13. William Hauser, "The Peacetime Army: Retrospect and Prospect," in Robin Higham and Carol Brandt, ed., The United States Army in Peacetime (Manhattan, KS: Military Affairs, 1975), p. 217. See also David McCormick, The Downsized Warrior: America's Army in Transition (New York: New York University Press, 1998), pp. 89-111.

14. Edward N. Luttwak, The Pentagon and the Art of War (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1985), pp. 100-105, 188.

15. Based on discussions with Dr. Steven Canby.

16. Russell F. Weigley, "American Strategy from its Beginnings through the First World War," in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 439-441.

17. James F. Dunnigan, How to Make War (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1993), p. 584-585. See also James Burton, "Desert Storm: A Different Look," unpublished briefing, June 1995.

18. Williamson Murray, "Military Culture Does Matter," Foreign Policy Research Institute Wire (downloaded from the Internet), January 1999.

19. Robert Leonhard, The Principles of War in the Information Age (Novato, CA: Presido Press, 1998), pp. vii & xiv.

20. Chuck Spinney, "Email Common Sense (II): TacAir Readiness, Suppressing Email from the Troops, and the Widening Wedge of Mistrust," Chuck Spinney Comments (downloaded from the Internet), 6 Feb 1999.

Published June 1999