National Security

Military Brain Drain

The Pentagon's top brass is driving away all the smart people.

In his recent book Bleeding Talent, Tim Kane joins a growing chorus of serving and former junior officers to deliver a wake-up call to today's military leadership in the face of a major drawdown. Their message: If you ignore the expectations of today's young, combat-experienced leaders as you shrink the force, your most talented officers and sergeants will exit, stage left.

The military bureaucracy's response? "Good Riddance."

During any military drawdown, equipment, training, force structure, and end-strength will inevitably be sacrificed. But the "crown jewel" that must be preserved in order to be able to fight and win in the years ahead is human capital. Recruiting and retaining highly talented people remains the best guarantor of success in future conflicts. No distant campaign against a wily and unpredictable enemy in the 21st century will be won without innovative and creative military leadership. And that leadership is most at risk in the coming thinning of the military's rolls. And the officer corps most of all.

A colleague told me of a recent meeting with a roomful of senior generals in which he outlined the looming "talent drain," highlighting the prospect that the most exceptional officers will flee the force in droves over the next five years. Their response echoed the one I hear all too often from both active and retired generals: "If they want to leave the team, we'd be better off without them."


In no business enterprise would the large-scale loss of an organization's top performers be greeted with such indifference. In fact, given the likely impact of such losses on any firm's bottom line, corporate chieftains would likely soon be looking for new jobs themselves if they dismissed their responsibility for managing their best talent. In today's competitive and uncertain environment, any company that loses its top talent will go out of business.

But in the military, not so much.

With more people than it needs as budgets shrink, and no management redlines to alert service leaders to the loss of their best young leadership, the military simply assumes there will always be more than enough talent to go around. Managing decreasing numbers becomes more important than fighting to retain the best manpower. And a "so what" attitude among senior military leaders toward the loss of highly skilled talent is seen as acceptable, a bravado that is often encouraged by those who "stayed on the team" through previous drawdowns. After all, many of today's generals think, "As junior officers, we stayed while others left, and we've made out just fine." Plenty of talent will stay, as it always has. Why worry?

There can be no more deadly, pernicious outlook from current or former senior leaders. It conveys a fundamentally flawed message to the military's young leaders that individuals don't count, that talent doesn't matter, and that even in the hyper-competitive world of the 21st century, in the U.S. military, "parts is parts." This outlook has the potential for deadly consequences as end-strength plunges.

Secretary Bob Gates challenged the Army in a February 2011 speech at West Point to change in order to retain and empower the kinds of leaders it will need for the 21st century. Gates observed: "[The] greatest challenge facing your Army and my main worry [is]: How can the Army break up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most battle-tested young officers to lead the service in the future?" Cadets cheered, junior officers were encouraged, and the bureaucracy changed not at all.

Two years later, the worry described by Gates remains -- while the primary response from the military services has most often been silence and a denial of the problem. As I've noted before, and as Gates pointed out in his West Point speech, the Army (and military writ large) is competing for talent with Google -- not a 1950s widget factory. And it is going to start losing, dramatically. 

It does not have to be so. There is no reason not to listen and respond to the concerns of younger officers -- while also fully meeting the needs of the service. But you can't do it with a World War II mindset, an insular outlook, or an Industrial Age personnel system -- all of which are markedly in evidence today. And in the coming years, throwing money at the problem is not likely to be as easy as in the past.

So what must the senior military leadership -- the service secretaries and four-star generals -- do?

First, know your talent inventory. Make sure you can identify your performers -- the top 1, 5, and 25 percent, and subsequent percentages below. Measure your attrition against each category, and hold your personnel managers accountable for keeping as many of those in the top tiers as possible and disproportionately shedding poor performers. If the reverse happens -- if the best leave and the worst stay -- you have failed.

Know your intellectual capital, which may not always correlate with your "top performers." Know what percentages of your officers score in the top mental categories at each rank to monitor potential loss of intellectual capital. Look for non-standard undergraduate degrees and unusual life experiences and find a way to weight those factors.

Know your outliers. Exceptionally gifted individuals often struggle in their one-size-fits-all initial assignments, and their early ratings may reflect poor performance rather than growing pains. The best platoon leader in a brigade may not grow up to be the best four-star strategic leader. Collect every leader's SATs and GREs and analyze against who fits where on the performance curve, and fight to avoid wholesale losses of your future intellectual capital. Balance current performance against intellectual potential as you shape the force.

Empower your personnel managers -- and hold them accountable -- to create the coming smaller force with the performance and intellectual specifications you want. Don't let the end result of who stays in fall to happenstance or whim, and don't accept marginal outcomes because it's simply too hard to individually manage top performers and sharp thinkers. Demand that managers incentivize the best to stay, and rigorously examine quality leaders who depart so you can correct the system. Don't settle for mediocrity and call it success.

Get your field commanders into this fight. Require them to take on the mission of keeping the best on board. The best will already be doing this. Give them access to strong retention incentives -- graduate schooling, assignment overrides, broadening opportunities -- that can be decentralized to those on the cutting edge who know talent the best. Insist commanders at all levels in the field make this a top priority.

Finally, find a way to give today's officers more of a voice in their assignments and in their lives. If there is one key generational difference between today's young officers and those of my generation (and there are many), expecting a voice in their future is the one that most stands out -- for the officer, for his or her spouse with a separate career, and for their family. One answer may be the creation of "yellow pages" to apply for assignments as Tim Kane suggests. Officers and their families want choices, not simply orders. Another is simply more humane one-on-one dialogue between human resources directors and individual officers. During a rapid drawdown, the human resources impetus is to "dump" officers, and no one is held accountable for the ensuing quality drain as many of the best exit. That meat-ax approach to management has to end if the military is to retain critical talent in this drawdown as a hedge against a very dangerous world.

It's time to listen to Kane and Gates -- they have it mostly right. Senior service leaders must take a harder look at themselves in the mirror when defending a 60-year old personnel system. It is 2013, not the Mad Men era of 1963. And sustaining the military preeminence of the United States starts with a uniquely American ideal -- cultivating the best and brightest, so they can lead the force into a dangerous future. It should be the first priority of today's senior military leaders, not their last.

Staff Sgt. Pablo Piedra/DVIDS

National Security

A 'Zero Option' for Afghanistan

Yes, President Karzai, we might pull out completely.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit this week to Washington marks one of the final big decision points in America's 11-year Afghanistan war. This week's meetings are likely to determine the final U.S. footprint in Afghanistan after 2014, when all international combat operations are slated to end. And that residual number of U.S. forces could well be zero.

Recent reports suggest that the White House is looking at troop options ranging from 3,000 to as many as 15,000 stay-behind troops. Many think that the final figure will be well under 10,000. These numbers are much diminished from proposals seriously considered even 12 to 24 months ago of a long-term presence in the range of 20,000 to 35,000 troops. The realities of shrinking budgets and crumpled public support for the war have dramatically trimmed those expectations. In recent weeks, vigorous debate has been under way inside the administration in advance of Karzai's visit to sort out a minimalist approach that will protect long-term U.S. interests in the region, but do so with the absolute leanest outlay of dollars and troops.

Karzai comes to this week's discussions convinced that the United States desperately needs long-term military bases in Afghanistan. He sees an America without other viable options to maintain its regional influence, cajole Pakistan, threaten Iran, or launch raids against nearby terrorists. Because of this, Karzai thinks that he holds all the cards in the upcoming negotiations. He is absolutely convinced that the United States has no workable strategic choice but to station substantial U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

But Karzai has it wrong. There is strong sentiment in the United States to look at all the options. Here are five reasons why:

Iraq. The outcome of America's war in Iraq sets a strong precedent for a similar "zero" U.S. military posture in Central Asia. Iraq has not become an Iranian puppet state nor descended into chaos since the United States withdrew all its military forces at the end of 2011. The United States maintains a robust diplomatic presence there -- and presumably conducts intelligence activities -- to protect its interests. Iraqi political decisions are often at odds with U.S. preferences; few think that a U.S. troop presence would change that reality. Iraq's failure to grant remaining U.S. soldiers legal immunity from Iraqi law doomed any possibility of a residual force there; the same could happen in Afghanistan, and withdrawal could be seen as an equally viable outcome by many Americans.

Budgetary pressure. With a debt crisis and crumbling infrastructure at home, enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for spending taxpayer dollars on foreign adventures is at an all-time low. The recent action to avert the fiscal cliff has delayed, but not fixed, the substantial imbalance between U.S. spending and revenue. A perpetual flow of billions of aid dollars to Afghanistan after 2014 -- for U.S. troops or for Afghans -- will be a much tougher sell two years from now than it is today. And it is very tough today.

War weariness. By 2014, the United States will have been at war in Afghanistan for over 12 years. The connection between Afghanistan and the 9/11 attacks has frayed deeply since Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces in 2011. With over 2,000 Americans killed and another 17,000 wounded in over a decade of inconclusive fighting, most Americans are looking for an exit from a seemingly interminable war. Maintaining congressional and popular support for an unending deployment of thousands of U.S. troops after 12 years at war will be supremely difficult, even more so if casualties continue.

Stand-off capabilities. The United States has powerful remote intelligence, surveillance, and strike capabilities that could only be dreamed of in the 1990s. These capabilities increasingly can be employed from "stand-off" distances, with a few flying from as far as the United States. Some of these capabilities require regional basing, but Afghanistan is not the only country that can provide low-visibility basing options. Drones have changed the face of warfare, and used in concert with U.S. intelligence into remote areas, they are increasingly lethal to terrorists.

U.S. intelligence networks. Eleven years of extensive quiet intelligence efforts partnered with Afghans (and Pakistanis) have created a deep web of friendly contacts that will be maintained long after 2014. In some ways, the post-2014 environment in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area could evolve into a prolonged "intelligence war," with hundreds of U.S. operatives and billions of covert dollars invested in preventing further terrorist attacks on the United States. Given its vital importance, this undertaking will endure -- regardless of the size of the residual U.S. military presence.

U.S. President Barack Obama will have to weigh the substantial risks inherent in a "Zero Option" for Afghanistan. Absent the stabilizing influence of some numbers of U.S. troops, Afghanistan could slip back into chaos, experiencing a new version of the devastating civil war that rent the country in the 1990s. The ability to see and strike terrorist groups that aim to attack the United States or its allies from within the region would be degraded. Al Qaeda could surge into growing ungoverned spaces and perhaps re-establish a more prominent foothold. U.S. influence on a nuclear-armed Pakistan would undoubtedly lessen if U.S. troops were no longer stationed next door. And the potential for the United States to put pressure on Iran from U.S. forces posted near its eastern border would vanish. By any measure, it is a suboptimal posture for the United States in the region, but not necessarily an untenable one.

Obama must consider all these risks as he sits down with Karzai to hammer out this last chapter of the war. Karzai would be wise to avoid overplaying his hand. Even though the Zero Option is not the best choice to protect American long-term regional interests, it certainly remains on the table. Overreach on Karzai's part could easily sour prospects for any sort of enduring U.S. military presence.

For Americans, the Afghanistan war is entering its final phase. Obama knows that this war will end on his watch. His legacy as president will inevitably be shaped by its outcome. Whether U.S. troops ultimately stay or leave Afghanistan after 2014 may now come down to just one week of tough bargaining. Each nation has a great deal at stake.