Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Grand Strategy, Procurement Failures and Rejecting Mediocrity

There are three overarching elements preventing our military and national security apparatus from fully executing the goals of our country.  The first is the most important: Creating, Communicating and Understanding a Grand National Strategy.  Under this theme are elements specific to the military itself:  a wildly out of control procurement system and an antiquated personnel management system.

Until we solve these three elements, the United States will have a difficult time fully adapting to the global leadership requirements of the Twenty-First Century.  A culmination of exposure to all three in the past day have made a profound impact on me. 

Grand Strategy

Military members often mistake Grand Strategy as being something wholly within the purview of armed force.  Those that write about it make the same mistake:
"Historical judgement of war is subject to an inflexible law, either very imperfectly understood or very constantly lost sight of.  Military writers love to fight over the campaigns of history exclusively by the rules of the professional chess board, always subordinating, often totally ignoring, the element of politics.  This is a radical error.  Every war is begun, dominated, and ended by political considerations.  Without a nation, without a government, without money or credit, without popular enthusiasm which furnishes volunteers, or public support which endures conscription, there could be no Army and no war...War and politics, campaign and statecraft, are Siamese Twins, inseparable and interdependent; and to talk of military operations without the direction and interference of an administration is as absurd as to plan a campaign without recruits, pay or rations."
For instance, the "strategy" of the moment happens to be Air/Sea Battle.  Much discussed, much maligned, it is merely a sweeping military method for dealing with a very specific set of circumstances.  It is also publicly vague; the antithesis of a clear, unifying national vision.  Fundamentally, it fails to address the most important question: What is America's current and purpose in the world at large?

Grand Strategy must necessarily encompass all elements of the national effort.  Economic development, education, innovation, statecraft, diplomacy, and finally, military engagement all must be considered.  An excellent historical primer on this is found in Edward Luttwak's "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire." 

All of these elements must be crafted within the mission statement of what America is, and where we want her to be in the coming decades.  This alone is what should be driving our global policies.  Without a clear end state in mind, it's difficult to know where to prioritize both people and treasure. 

Right now, we lack that coherent message -- and as many have noted, America's purpose has been unclear since the existential Soviet threat was vanquished.  The problem runs much deeper than not knowing where we are headed, however.  As Capt Porter in the video below notes about our government as a whole:
"Somehow we've developed institutional autism...many times autistic individuals, they suffer from an inability to understand the consequences of their actions outside their cognitive realm.  They have difficulty communicating.  They are unwilling to accept change.  They do repetitive and compulsive behaviors.  And they are incapable of recognizing or dealing with uncertainty.  Does that sound familiar to anyone here? (laughter) And you know why?  Its because we've disconnected the left and right hemispheres of our brain.  We've disconnected institutionally, our creative, the right side of our brain, our non-linear creative side, from our left side, the technological and linguistic processing side.  Weve separated those two and we are not allowing innovation to drive the nation forward where we need to go in this century."
This video is some of the best 20 minutes I've spent intellectually, and while laying out the challenge, makes me optimistic that some of those at the higher levels do, in fact, recognize the crossroads we as a country are at.

Yet, even by the end of the talk, they had not articulated what our Grand Strategy should be.  They talked about how to get there in a very useful way.  But I am still left wondering, what are our ultimate aims?  Who is taking the responsibility to articulate them?

Perhaps something as simple as an offering from Andrew Bacevich would suffice: "If America has a mission, that mission is to model freedom rather than to impose it."


Within a Grand Strategy, although not supreme, the military will necessarily play a large role.  An adaptable strategy requires flexible, rapid procurement systems able to deliver technology when needed.  It also requires the ability for on the ground commanders to purchase off the shelf kit, modify it, and utilize innovative non-traditional industrial firms with unique solutions.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near this reality, and seem to be getting further from it with every passing day.  Case in point is the continuing F-35 procurement saga.  On AOL Defense, Republican Congressman and House Armed Services Committee Seapower Subcommittee Chairman asked Why Doesn't the F-35 Program Follow the Rules?
After twenty years in development, it is time the DoD and Lockheed Martin gave the American people some firm idea of when they could see a return on their $400 billion investment in the F-35 program... Sadly, after lobbying by those in opposition [eds. note: Lockheed Martin lobbyists swarmed the HASC when word about the Akin amendment leaked], members of the Armed Services Committee decided my amendment went too far and instead required the DoD to establish an [initial operational capability] date, but without any consequences if they fail to do so; something they have done on multiple occasions in the past.
This is indicative of a system dominated by established defense firms, with no accountability to taxpayers or the warfighters they are providing equipment to.  Whether it be shipbuilding, Army kit, aviation assets or cybersecurity, our procurement system is as broken as politics in Washington.   Our system consistently fails to deliver the correct kit to the correct place at the correct time.  

Constitutionally, Congress controls the purse strings.  They have been poor stewards.  Even the threat of sequestration has had no effect on the trough actually being closed.  Requiring budget discipline forces hard, but necessary decisions to be made with creative solutions.  It culls the good ideas from the bad.  Instead, there is almost bi-partisan agreement that waste in the name of defense is no vice, while restraint in the name of budgetary reality no virtue.

Finding, Retaining, and Promoting Talent

Strategic coherence and disciplined spending alone will be insufficient without men and women able to execute the mission effectively.  An Industrial Age career model is woefully insufficient for the information age.  The military promotes too few people early enough, and too many people too far.

Don't Promote Mediocrity by BGen Mark C Arnold is the most compelling way forward I have ever read.  A reservist with extensive experience in the private sector, his ability to conceptually blend elements from one professional field to another is a perfect example of applied Disruptive Thinking.

Some highlights:
Largely unchanged since 1947, military human resources policies reward compliance, not performance or innovation. The HR bureaucracies are quantity-driven, not talent-focused. They are narrowly focused on assigning officers to jobs that align with their branch or specialty, with little consideration given to individual inclinations for assignments and almost none to past performance for O-2s through O-4s.
Indeed, a 2010 study by the Army Research Institute found that the main reason talented people leave is not the lure of a lucrative civilian career, but because mediocre people stay in and get promoted. 
Year-group systems promote high talent at nearly the same pace as mediocre and below-average officers during their first 20 years of service. For instance, the active-duty Army promoted 99 percent of lieutenants to captain and 95 percent of captains to major during its 2011 boards. In 2010, selection rates for Army O-5s were 94 percent and above 85 percent in all other services. This is unheard of in the private sector. It rings loudly of institutionalizing mediocrity at best, and poisoning the pool of future senior leaders at worst.
Finally, my favorite part:
High talent demands flexibility. However, the active-duty military manages its human capital like the priesthood: Once you leave, with rare exceptions, you cannot return. The reserve components offer “drilling” assignments where officers can continue to serve: Flex to a few years of geographic stability for their family in locations other than backwater military towns, learn new skills at civilian employment, then return to active duty. Officers’ performance can be tracked during those years while in a reserve-component unit, and high talent, by definition, will be ready to serve as O-5 or O-6 commanders. Four years in those environments will not degrade a high-caliber officer’s skills any more than assignments at the Pentagon or a foreign embassy.
So, it seems the themes from these most pressing of issues center around the need to innovate and blend the best of practices from outside the military silo.   All require ways of thinking in a dynamic environment that shake up existing orthodoxy.

Awareness is growing, we just need leaders with the courage and willingness to act.  Because if we don't, somebody else in the world surely will.

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