National Security

Loss Leader

The Army needs to admit it has a problem -- or things will only get worse.

I'm glad to see a concerned senior Army officer respond to my recent piece on the risks of brain drain inside the U.S. military. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges undoubtedly speaks for many senior leaders in each service who feel exactly the same way about this looming challenge: "Hey, we don't even have a problem!"

Maybe, maybe not. Frankly, I remain worried. The issue is not that the best and brightest in the military have already left. My concern is that the worst effects of the ongoing drawdown are still to come -- and may well be years away. The people who must ultimately judge whether Hodges's defense is sound are the junior officers and sergeants wrestling with tough individual decisions about staying in or leaving the service. But for the Army, now is the time to look for leading indicators and craft proactive strategies to avert what could easily become one of the worst unintended consequences of shrinking the force.

Each service will have unique challenges keeping top-drawer talent as numbers drop, budgets tighten, and opportunities to serve in combat dwindle. But the Army most of all faces a perfect storm of vexing issues. It is gradually coming down from a wartime high of nearly 570,000 troops, planning to hit 490,000 by 2017. Most Army leaders and defense analysts expect that number will decline farther -- perhaps to 400,000 soldiers or less. Officer and NCO reductions -- voluntary and otherwise -- under that scenario could number in the tens of thousands.

At the same time it gets smaller, the Army is leaving a decade of combat that has energized the force with an unparalleled focus and sense of mission. The next Army will largely be a garrison force based almost entirely in the United States, with limited opportunities to serve abroad. Even its planned exercise program to rotate units regularly overseas is jeopardized by lack of funding. Convincing experienced combat leaders that this force will be an empowering, exciting place to serve is the ultimate challenge. The bare bones remedies Hodges outlines are not nearly adequate to the task. Fundamental change is needed. Here are a few ways to do it:

Reform the Army personnel system. Hodges notes that 22 of his 25 assignments resulted from superiors intervening in the process. That's the definition of a non-functioning personnel system. Three years ago, the Army developed an innovative new personnel system dubbed "Army Green Pages." This prototype created a market system for talent within the Army, allowing both unit commanders and individual officers to "bid" on leaders to fill open jobs. Despite enthusiastic support by then-service chief (and now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Marty Dempsey, it has since languished, blocked by Army bureaucrats. Adopting this system would completely revolutionize Army personnel management, and move it overnight from a wholesale Cold War system to a 21st century retail version. Individual goals would be matched with the needs of the service in ways the current system rarely manages.

Empower young leaders. The Army's recently developed concept of Mission Command formally endorses the need for junior leaders to take independent action in combat -- even in the absence of orders. This idea fully captures the spirit of empowered leadership. But it flies in the face of how the Army operates in garrison when it's not at war. For example, today's peacetime-focused system of Army regulations could fill a small town library. Eliminating 10 percent of those regulations a year for five years could clear out a lot of the constrictive underbrush and put teeth into the idea of granting more authority to leaders. Even better would be to task the Army's inspector general to gather suggestions from young leaders in the field for divesting old rules still creating a bureaucratic morass.

Decentralize training. The Army of the 1980s that Hodges grew up in was built upon a highly structured, formalized training model. Junior leaders had little "white space" on the annual training calendar; the vast majority of training time was taken by higher levels of command for top-down ritualized training events, often driven by economies of scale and cost efficiencies. The pull to return to this proven system will be great. But the Army's junior leaders have spent the last 10 years fighting a war at the small-unit level -- the ultimate test of a leader. Finding creative ways to replicate those combat-proven levels of small-unit authority and autonomy in peacetime should be the focus of the Army's next training model. Hundred-page written orders stipulating how the battalion will conduct its tank gunnery qualifications won't cut it with this crowd.

Get serious about civilian education. Hodges favorably notes the Army's Congressional Fellowship program, highlighting its 25 graduate school slots tied to follow-on Capitol Hill staff jobs. Unfortunately, all of the Army's funded civilian graduate programs today represent a drop in the bucket, even in comparison to what the Army was doing in the 1980s. Civilian graduate school creates the intellectual seed corn of future Army strategic leadership. It is an essential tool in growing senior leaders capable of understanding and dominating the complex conflicts of the future. It is highly valued among the officer corps as a key developmental step as well. And it presents an important road to keep Army leaders better connected to the society they serve. Every officer who stays for a career should be afforded the opportunity for mind-broadening advanced civilian education -- the mark of a professional force. Today at Harvard, I'm told there are over a dozen young West Pointers enrolled in graduate programs, but only a handful are still in uniform. Many left service because the Army would not support them attending -- clearly a missed opportunity to keep some very talented people on the team. NCOs should similarly be able to compete for full-time sabbaticals for selective undergraduate and graduate programs to deepen the Army's base of specialist skills.

Stabilize the force. More and more young Army leaders and their families place great value on staying in one location for extended periods -- a much different model from the typical scattershot Army officer career path. My family moved 21 times during my 30 years -- just one example of systemic madness in Army personnel assignments. Today's Army families look for assignment stability so that children can stay in their schools longer, couples can own a home, and spouses can keep good jobs. Many young leaders are desperately trying to find ways to put their "families first" while remaining committed to an Army career. The Army needs to make that easier, not harder. Repetitive rotations to new places every two to three years disrupts children's educations and upends family incomes in ways that will quickly become unacceptably onerous for this generation. Ignoring this reality unnecessarily risks the retention of great officers and NCOs.

Redefine senior leadership. No Army junior officer I know ever uttered the words: "I sure wish the general was out here visiting my training site." Notwithstanding the importance of senior leaders seeing what their subordinate commands are doing, I would argue the three foremost tasks of senior leaders in the coming years are mastering the senior levels of the profession of arms, which are: strategy and operations, developing and mentoring the next generation of leaders, and managing defense costs to deliver military capability for less expense. Of these, leader development may be the most important.

Before 9/11, most senior leaders prioritized managing unit collective training over developing mid-grade officers into strategic leaders. That balance has to change. Division and corps commanders should focus on developing and mentoring brigade commanders. This group in particular has been disconnected from higher-level mentorship and professional development for the last decade. Intense time spent by generals mentoring colonels would make major contributions to growing a more diversified and broad-thinking next generation of senior officers. This might include table-top exercises, terrain walks, battlefield staff rides, diverse book discussions, and visits to innovative segments of the private sector. These opportunities have been largely absent for a decade given an Army at war. On the other hand, they could well be displaced by more micromanaging by senior leaders as the Army comes out of two wars and returns to garrison duties. Recognizing and then avoiding the temptation toward micromanagement will empower young leaders -- and get the 10-mile screwdriver out of their backsides. It will also free up generals' time to better develop strategic leaders among the next generation.

Listen to junior leaders. Young sergeants, lieutenants, and captains who have fought our most recent wars are of a much different generational gene pool from today's generals, who grew up in the Army of the 1980s and 1990s. Their expectations, frames of reference, technological savvy, and lifetime aspirations -- along with those of their spouses -- are not at all synonymous with those of the Army's senior leaders. For one, they want to have a bigger voice in mapping their future and will expect the Army to better accommodate their personal and family goals. They need to be carefully heard out. These ideas will often be fresh, sometimes counterintuitive, and at times wholly disruptive to the current ways of doing things. And they may be spot on. Senior leaders must seriously engage in this dialogue -- in ways that have never been easy or comfortable within the Army's deeply hierarchical structure. Simply paying lip service to these younger leaders' concerns will only drive them from the force more rapidly. Important structures within the Army -- ranging from personnel to training to leader development -- need to be shaped by this dialogue. And listening to the junior officers who comment on the exchange between Lt. Gen. Hodges and me is a good place to start.

These are just a few ideas on what needs to substantively change in the Army to help keep the best leaders on board. Despite the "we don't have a problem" cant of Hodges's article, the reality is that the Army's battle for talent has just begun. And the outcome won't be decided by current or former generals having online debates among themselves -- but by young leaders looking at the facts, and deciding if this next Army is one in which they see themselves.

Sgt. Christopher Bigelow/DVIDS

National Security

Silicon, Iron, and Shadow

Three wars that will define America's future.

The wars of the 21st century will be dominated by three overlapping types of conflict: Wars of Silicon, Wars of Iron, and Wars in the Shadows. The United States must design a new readiness and investment strategy in order to effectively deal with all three. Yet today it continues to pour scarce resources chiefly into its sphere of long-held dominance -- Wars of Iron. This is a potentially disastrous mistake, but one that can be corrected if we act now.

Wars of Silicon represent the most demanding scenarios that the United States could face in the coming decades. These wars represent the "high bar" -- a potential U.S. faceoff against a deadly trifecta of cutting-edge technology, advanced military capabilities, and substantial financial resources. While these wars will be built around cyber-technology, they may well include highly-sophisticated weapons and other evolving forms of mayhem -- from malevolent biological agents to disruptions of critical infrastructure.

Several states loom as possible Silicon War opponents, the most obvious being China. But the circle of potential enemies grows each year as more adversaries gain access to technology that enables them to strike and harm the United States, even without conventional power projection capabilities. Non-state actors will pose a threat too, as even the smallest group of skilled malcontents can deliver Silicon War effects from their home computers. Immediately attributing certain attacks may prove difficult, complicating both deterrence and counterattack.

At scale, Silicon Wars may enable powerful state actors to unbalance and unhinge U.S. regional or global objectives by undercutting both its civil and military capabilities. A high-end, economically powerful adversary could deploy sophisticated cyberthreats in combination with large numbers of highly-equipped conventional forces. Combinations of these capabilities could deny U.S. forces access to critical airspace and waterways. Although the United States does not seek such confrontations -- nor see them as inevitable -- it must be prepared for a world in which a new standard is being set for advanced military competition. Unquestionably, some substantial portion of the U.S. military must be designed to counter this growing and most demanding threat.

Investment Implications: Wars of Silicon require a different balance of U.S. security capabilities than exists now. These wars present new challenges that cannot be addressed solely with the forces and systems that the Pentagon plans to bring online in the next 10 years. With the increased possibility of a high-end, economically powerful actor with regional ambitions -- think China in 2030 -- it's time for the United States to substantially alter its current investment portfolio. Arguably, the United States remains most deeply exposed to foreign-directed mayhem in the cyber-domain, so it should increase spending on both defensive and offensive cyber-capabilities.

In anti-access conflicts, maritime and airpower will remain high-value capabilities, but only if adapted to this new threat. Forces that today are most effective when operating close to enemy shores will be particularly vulnerable in a Silicon War because of growing numbers of advanced long-range missiles, so striking from greater distances with unmanned platforms will be essential. The vulnerability of many of today's short-range manned aircraft and low-end ships makes them largely unsuitable for this type of war. It also argues against buying lots more of the same, particularly at exorbitant cost. Much better for the United States to increase its ability to operate from long distances with more survivable precision-strike capabilities. Moreover, standoff air and naval forces -- partnered with missile defense and ground forces -- will most effectively reassure U.S. allies and therefore sustain the global credibility of American power as rising regional actors put military pressure on their neighbors.

Wars of Iron will continue to represent the bulk of potential conflicts around the world over the next several decades, but they will look different from conventional wars in the past. These wars will originate primarily from nation-states, triggered by instability and competing interests. Wars of this variety could involve a host of recognizable and as-yet emerging actors: Iran, North Korea, Russia, or other autocratic regimes or rogue aggressors. A disruptive change of government may be all that divides today's benign state from tomorrow's deadly regional threat. Late-20th-century weaponry will predominate on these battlefields. And yet these wars will not simply replicate the conventional military symmetry of the Cold War -- tank armies battling tank armies or air-to-air engagements. Each will entail a unique blend of conventional and unconventional capabilities, often described as "hybrid" warfare. The United States will have to be prepared to fight and win in this domain as well, reinforcing the need for highly capable and versatile (if smaller) U.S. ground forces.

Most nation-states will continue to build military power through conventional weaponry, while also seeking new advantages in both cyber- and irregular-warfare capabilities. Others will deploy large militaries well-equipped with late-20th century capabilities, but leavened by selective new technologies. For example, the largely conventional million-man North Korean military could deploy GPS jammers to divert guided munitions, employ hackers to disrupt adversary command and control, and employ its 100,000 commandos for widespread disruption behind enemy lines. This mix-and-match of capabilities will be common among threats for the remainder of the 21st century, differentiated only by degree.

Investment Implications: The United States is immensely well-prepared to deal with Wars of Iron and is poised to buy more conventional "iron" weaponry at massive expense -- arguably to face a world of limited threats, none existential. In the face of growing fiscal pressure, the United States is in effect pouring immense resources into perfecting yesterday's capabilities, robbing scarce capital from investments required to address the growth of emerging technologies and high-end competitors. More short-range strike fighters and low-end surface ships mirroring today's ways of fighting are not the answer. These "legacy-plus" systems come at the cost of essential research in science and technology. Put simply, over-investment in Wars of Iron is robbing the U.S. military and the nation of the resources it will need to develop and field dominant military capabilities for the world of 2030.

Wars in the Shadows are the third type of potential conflict. A decade of irregular conflict in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 has left the United States well-prepared to fight in this domain. It arguably has the most capable low-level intelligence and special forces capabilities in its history, honed by years of war against insurgents and terrorists. And it is increasingly apparent that these irregular wars will persist in the aftermath of the U.S. military drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps for decades to come. Ongoing special forces and intelligence operations in Yemen, the Philippines, Colombia, Mali, Niger, and the Horn of Africa all speak to the pervasiveness of unconventional extremist threats in remote corners of the world. In the last decade, al Qaeda has metastasized across a broad range of countries and regions, committing the United States to an increasingly global fight aimed at preventing further attacks on the U.S. homeland or its allies. As a result, the United States has directed substantial resources into capabilities optimized for fighting Shadow Wars. Drones, special operators, intelligence activities, and other tools of unconventional warfare will continue to be in high demand.

Investment Implications: The United States unquestionably needs to sustain its decade-long investment in irregular-warfare capabilities. In particular, its ability to collect actionable intelligence from around the globe provides an irreplaceable bulwark against surprise attacks by al Qaeda-like groups. This worldwide early-warning network has become indispensible to the defense of the nation. That same network enables special operators to both pre-empt threats and rapidly retaliate. The American people have come to expect this level of protection, putting down an enduring marker for the defense and intelligence communities.

Fast-growing technologies have advanced the capabilities of this community dramatically in the last decade -- and these new tools have in turn become adjuncts to all three types of wars. Drones for surveillance and strike have become the iconic weapon of this era. They are increasingly long-range, high-endurance, and capable of precision strike. They deserve sustained investment to push the envelope of new capabilities. The ability to rapidly process intelligence from these diverse sources and "turn" it back into immediate battlefield results is also ground-breaking if less visible.

Finally, highly-trained special operators are becoming a pre-eminent American military capability, providing a scalable, multi-role tool in an uncertain security environment. Offering skills ranging from partnership-building and advisory capabilities to strike operations, special operations forces will continue to be the weapon of choice for many complex scenarios. Sustaining recent investments in this community and its enablers -- not only drones, but also helicopters and airplanes -- should remain a top priority. But they remain an adjunct to, not a replacement for, conventional forces, which are still necessary to prevail in the bigger Wars of Iron.

The coming defense drawdown and budgetary belt-tightening offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the U.S. military and defense industry toward the three wars of the future. The political climate in Washington in the aftermath of sequestration suggests the time is here for bolder moves. Current procurement plans are feeding vast resources into programs designed to achieve even more dominance in Wars of Iron, while doing far too little to prepare for the coming Wars of Silicon. It's time to seize the moment and re-balance the U.S. investment portfolio with a bias toward future capabilities, rather than doubling down on costly replacements for today's still highly-capable weapons systems. Failure to make this shift now will leave the nation at risk when the truly high-end wars of the future arrive.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Wahl/DVIDS