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Donald E. Vandergriff: Army Crisis -- Personnel System Is the Foe (First of 2 Parts)
Donald E. Vandergriff: Army Crisis -- Personnel System Is the Foe (First of 2 Parts)

About the Author

Major Donald E. Vandergriff, USA, an armor officer, teaches military science at Georgetown University Army ROTC. Vandergriff began his military career with the United States Marine Corps, and has had extensive experience in the field with the Army. After he transferred from the Marine Corps to the Army National Guard, he initially served as a cavalry platoon leader in the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment (TNARNG). Upon entering active duty, he served in the Republic of Korea as a tank platoon, tank company executive officer and scout platoon leader for almost two years; at the National Training Center (serving both as an observer controller and in the OPFOR); and in the Middle East and Germany.

He has his undergraduate degree in education from the University of Tennessee, a graduate degree in military history from American Military University, and began his PhD studies in military history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Major Vandergriff has lectured extensively on military effectiveness and cultural impacts in the United States and Europe. He has also been the subject of several articles that deal with military effectiveness and military transformation, including features in the Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker Magazine, The National Journal, Government Executive Magazine, The Washington Monthly, Army Times, Stars and Stripes, Norfolk News-Gazette and Pittsburg Star.

He currently lives in Woodbridge, Virginia with his wife Lorraine, and their three dogs and one cat. Vandergriff has always been athletically competitive, playing Rugby at the University of Tennessee 1982-1984, at Fort Irwin 1987-1990, in Germany 1993-4, and in Northern Virginia 1996-97. Vandergriff also participated in Iron Man competitions from 1987-1990, and was an avid snow skier. His current hobbies include Tennessee college football, military wargaming, mountain biking, hiking and his dogs.

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October 15, 2003

[Have an opinion about the views expressed in this commentary? Sound off in the Discussion Forum.]

“If you don’t make dramatic changes within a year to large organizations, changes will not occur at all.” – Jack Welch, The GE Way: Management Insights and Leadership Secrets of the Legendary CEO, by Robert Slater, 1998

“If I knew now what I should have known then about the personnel bureaucracy, I would have focused more of my time changing it. It [the personnel bureaucrats] waited me out and all the changes we made faded away.” – Gen. Edward “Shy” Meyer, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff, 1998

I keep watching bold and corrective proposals to improve the U.S. Army today getting cut to pieces on the chopping blocks of compromise. In my comprehensive analysis of attempts at reform to the Army’s personnel system (Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution of Human Affairs, Presidio Press, April 2002), I found that when compromises are made primarily to appease personnel managers and special-interest groups dedicated to keeping the status quo –- who do not understand warfare or military effectiveness –- the subsequent reforms are so watered down that they do not deliver the promised effectiveness.

Then, senior leaders and personnel people point and say, “They don’t work –- where we were was fine.” The Army then returns to its tried-and-true (and doomed-to-fail) solution to achieving effectiveness -– more money.

Once again, opponents of reform are dead wrong. Several reform initiatives on the street -– in particular, the proposed Unit Manning System including both unit rotations and unit cohesion life cycles –- promises to transform the force by maximizing the Army’s combat effectiveness for major conflicts today and in the future.

But to do so, Army leaders must be bold and demonstrate the strength of character to focus on an all-embracing transformation of the personnel system, the centerpiece of service culture.

They must reject attempts by the personnel bureaucracy to dilute the changes and weaken the reforms in the name of “compromise.”

A transformed personnel system will move the Army from the industrial or attrition form of warfare to the ability to conduct genuine maneuver warfare. It will provide “ready now” Army forces that if coordinated in a deployment cycle with naval, air and special operations units will be able to deploy at a moment’s notice and ready to fight upon reaching the theater of operations.

Operational commanders will be able to assemble indisputably Joint Task Forces from out of the various units whose leaders, staffs and troops have trained together with a unit manning cycle. (Under the unit manning cycle, other forces will be either preparing for redeployment to home base from overseas, or conducting initial training for future missions.)

There is urgent need to implement reform now.

With hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground in Iraq, senior military leaders are warning that the U.S. military is seriously overstretched and that the tempo of operations is running them ragged.

Seven months ago, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki was correct when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that it would require at least 200,000 troops to carry out a postwar occupation of Iraq.

Shinseki was heavily criticized at the time for his remarks, but we have 170,000 troops in Iraq today (down from a maximum of 220,000 several months ago). Meanwhile, the Pentagon this week announced substantial new reserve and National Guard mobilizations will occur in the months ahead to cover the manpower gap.

Shinseki in February also warned the Army needed to expand from its current 10 divisions to 12 to carry out current requirements. But this assumes that the antiquated and overly rigid Army personnel system remains intact.

I believe that the Army can do a better job on how it manages personnel. This requires once and for all replacing the obsolete personnel system and an out-of-date force structure with a system geared to the rapid-response nature of contemporary conflicts.

Overstretch and “hollowness” are caused by too many demands on the force. They stem from the inefficient way in which all of the services manage people and by current efforts to maintain readiness. The “tempo problem” has three manifestations:

  • PERSTEMPO: The most significant tempo problem occurs when the personnel system rapidly moves people, mainly officers and senior NCOs, from assignment to assignment in order to meet the demands of individual career advancement.

  • WORKTEMPO: The second tempo problem arises when commanders, determined to have a well-trained unit or concerned about having a successful command tour, overwork their people.

  • DEPTEMPO: The third tempo problem arises when people deploy to meet operational or training demands. This form of tempo could easily be managed if the problems caused by PERSTEMPO and WORKTEMPO were resolved. The readiness reporting system exacerbates the tempo problem because it counts only numbers and grades and gives no readiness credit for time in unit or levels of collective skills achieved. The current readiness reporting system virtually forces the services to move people around in order to appear to have ready units.

    The DoD personnel system, characterized by the individual replacement system and the Officer/NCO career management system, is the primary cause of these problems. American units and service members have long suffered from the excessive personnel turbulence and careerism caused by the personnel system, which was last codified at the end of World War II.

    Over the years, several Army Chiefs and Marine Commandants have tried but failed to reform the system in their service.

    The Army can create units that are more ready and service members who are more satisfied by changing the personnel system. The key aspects of such a change would be to use a unit replacement system – rather than a system based on individual replacements – and to allow officers and NCOs to manage their own careers.

    A unit rotation system would allow units to keep people together for three or more years and would allow units to develop true competence, e.g., Delta Force and the SEALs. Allowing officers and NCOs to manage their own careers, in conjunction with the elimination of counter productive policies like “up or out,” would allow individuals to develop true expertise in skills that are becoming increasingly important.

    Transforming the personnel system thus sharply increases readiness and proficiency while lowering personnel stress and enhancing the satisfaction of individual service members.

    A new personnel system also is essential to obtaining the benefits of DoD Transformation.

    Army leaders have no choice: They must immediately begin efforts to create a new personnel system.

    Next: Personnel reforms are key to winning future wars.

    Major Donald E. Vandergriff, an armor officer, is author of Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs. He can be reached at vandergriffdonald@usa.net

    © 2003 Major Donald E. Vandergriff. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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