Done right, deeply cutting headquarters can free human resources for the fight.
Earlier this month, Federal Times noted how the House version of the 2016 US National Defense Authorization Bill would mandate a 20 percent cut in headquarters staff across the Defense Department. As authorizations are not strictly tied to appropriations, the mandate could be hard to enforce. After all, two years ago, then-Secretary Chuck Hagel said that he wanted 20 percent too, but effectively no progress has been made. The challenge starts with accounting: in January, the Government Accountability Office reported how the Pentagon can’t even reliably report how many people it has on staff. Regardless of the innumeracy, the sentiment follows a widespread conviction that there are just too many people working behind the lines. So what to do? Profound changes to the military’s career management model are needed, but profound changes could free valuable human resources for battle.
Fairly, bloated headquarters are not a uniquely American problem; most NATO military forces suffer similar issues. Back in January as well, General Sir Nicholas Carter, chief of the British Army General Staff, announced that he intended to retire up to one-third of his 500 colonels and 200 brigadiers and generals. The announcement is welcome, but begs a question: for what has the British Army been using 200 flag officers? The US Marine Corps is almost twice the size of the British Army; including its brigadiers, the USMC but 80 generals. Generously counting, there aren’t 200 battalion-sized units in the British Army, and those are commanded by lieutenant colonels. In a reasonably big war, the British Army won’t deploy more than a division or two to start, each under a major general and a handful of brigadiers. A handful more might run the logistics from the rear, with another group heading up training and procurement.
We know that leaner-and-meaner is possible. As British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon hailed in a recent speech, the recently reorganized British Joint Forces Command is now “an organisation of 20,000 people and annual budget of over £4 billion run by a headquarters of around 300 people.” So how did this vast administrative sprawl come about? It’s a very path-dependent problem, as Parkinson’s Law holds: keep adding seemingly important support staff, and eventually you have “a magnificent navy on land.” In many European countries, the military also has the job security of the civil service, which is how the Swedish Army wound up with over three times as many officers as soldiers. Work must be found for them, and majors generally don’t lead platoons, so too many wind up mostly making briefing slides.
But is this apparent imbalance strictly a problem? Those officers are generally university-educated, and shedding them through an American up-or-out system would be a systematic and massive waste of human capital. As noted in our last installment, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus thinks that lock-step promotion is completely inappropriate for a professional force in a modern context. One might just think to reclassify the echelons, so that companies or battalions were “regiments” and could thus be led by colonels. Yet beyond the laughable marketing message, the point is not to find more work on the line for the fifty-somethings, delaying opportunities for the best of the thirty-somethings. The point is to extract more value from the work of career officers than can appear in PowerPoint.
Retired General Stanley McChrystal tacked the other way this week, telling the Washington Post that it’s time to shake up the military with term appointments of new generals direct from civilian fields. He proposes Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit, who recently reviewed his new book. If freshly commissioned admirals would make poor seamen, they’d at least come with a strong sense of why navies on land aren’t so helpful. But fairly, that’s the role of defense secretaries, deputy secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, and principal deputy under secretaries, of which the Pentagon at least has enough to provide paths for commercial insight to enter the Building. It’s the long-serving military assistant who “connects the political appointee, who may have no military background, to what happens out there on the ground, in the rain.”
That’s the view of another retired general, David Barno, then of the Center for a New American Security, and now at American University. As he told Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense back in 2013, the US military forces out most officers before the age of 50, “and we get no use out of them, except for bringing them back as contractors”—at much greater expense. His alternative was “super-colonels”—modern post-captains, who can fill jobs close to the action, but not physically leading infantry. Lower ranking-officers not destined for command could similarly be offered enduring careers in battlefield support roles apart from pure staff-work. That may not be the best place for contractors, but could be an excellent opportunity for officers “at the peak of their professional skills,” and a means to apply the full weight of the military’s human capital to the fight.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.