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)
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
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
“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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com