View Full Version : Transformation: ‘It’s the Personnel System, Stupid’

04-24-03, 07:07 AM

Transformation: ‘It’s the Personnel System, Stupid’

By Donald Vandergriff

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, fresh off the victory in Iraq, is pushing for comprehensive changes to the U.S. military’s antiquated personnel system. He is about to fight a bureaucratic war much more challenging and difficult than the take-down of Saddam Hussein.

To succeed as an element of a wider plan to transform the military into an effective, information-age force, these changes must both be revolutionary in concept and implementation. And that guarantees a vicious bureaucratic guerrilla war within the U.S. armed services.

A summary of the proposed transformation of the armed services reveals two fundamental concepts, new to all but some exceptional units in U.S. military history. One is an emphasis on moving more rapidly on the battlefield at all levels of warfare. The second concept is harder to implement: The Pentagon describes it as “Flexible decision-making [that] allows field forces to react quickly to changes in the battle.”

These changes, bolder than any in American history, will move the U.S. military from the Industrial Age – employing a mobilization doctrine which relies on attrition warfare – into the 21st century where it will be redesigned and equipped to employ genuine maneuver warfare strategy and tactics when it fights.

As Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld moves to transform the military personnel system, however, there is a danger that this effort could be undermined by “fast trackers” in the officer corps who pay lip service to transformation while ignoring the deep changes in U.S. military culture required to shift from centralized attrition warfare to decentralized maneuver warfare.

We are already seeing these types jumping on the transformation bandwagon, echoing the language of the great strategist, Col. John Boyd. During the war with Iraq it became common to hear Boyd-like phrases such as “inside one’s OODA loop,” or “We got inside his decision cycle.” This pays great homage to the late Boyd, who received hardly any recognition when he was alive. But there is more to make transformation succeed than buying new technology or saying the right buzz words.

Rumsfeld’s transformation of the military must embrace what Boyd termed the key to an effective military: an emphasis on people first, ideas second and hardware last. “People fight wars not machines, and they use their minds!” Boyd would lament over and over in his famous briefings.

The central issue of changing the military personnel system, and thereby transforming the U.S. military, is to move from what I call a system of mistrust to a culture in which the individual is trusted.

The current military culture, built on today’s personnel system, undermines trust with promotion anxiety and the competitive ethic fueled by the “up or out” promotion system. This system destroys unit cohesion by its reliance on the antiquated Individual Replacement System (IRS) by which individuals are transferred from one assignment to another throughout their careers.

We have long been forced to compensate for the negative effects of this counterproductive system – a continuous exodus of trained personnel and seasoned leaders and a continuous influx of raw recruits and untested commanders – with an expensive training tempo to preserve units’ collective combat effectiveness.

There is much to be done to rid the military of that ineffective and obsolete personnel structure. Unfortunately, the personnel transformation initiative to date has just scratched the surface.

Dr. David S.C. Chu, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Reserve Affairs, has looked at moving a limited number of military specialties away from the destructive and wasteful “up or out” promotion system to an “up or stay” concept. However, military service bureaucrats side-stepped this essential reform by hiring the Rand Corp. to only examine implementing this for nurses and some Special Operations occupational specialties. To date, the combat arms branches and personnel specialties there remain “off limits” – a move which if not overcome will essentially doom any meaningful reform.

Rumsfeld has also announced a proposal to prolong the tenures of senior officers serving in duty positions and extending their retirement age to 68. Again, these efforts must extend to all ranks and specialties to have significant impact, especially those involved with the complexity of commanding and leading combined arms forces in maneuver warfare.

Since the founding of the current personnel system, which is based on management theories and practices that are more than a hundred years old, several key aspects of the human side of our force have changed. These include: an increased education level of both enlisted and officers; medical, dietary and physical fitness advances that have increased the ability of much older people to stay competitive; the ability of people equipped with modern computer skills to master complex tasks quicker.

Yet, the Defense Department still embraces laws and personnel policies originally conceived by the Army to manage units in 1916.

The DoD personnel system, characterized by the Individual Replacement System and the Officer/NCO career management system, is itself 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. The system itself has not been significantly reformed or updated since the end of World War II. Several Army Chiefs and Marine Corps Commandants have tried and failed to change the system.

Opposition to change has historically centered in each military service’s personnel bureaucracy. And it will require breaking the bureaucrats’ stranglehold on the personnel system to enact true reform.

Personnel turbulence made inevitable by the existing system prevents training continuity and causes low unit readiness, low proficiency standards and high levels of work tempo and deployment (moving overseas) tempo as units strive to overcome organizational defects by long hours of training and frequent training deployments.

Careerism – another byproduct of the existing system – leads to micromanagement and overall distrust. It destroys cohesion and turns brothers-in-arms into competitors for promotion and choice assignments.

The services know this, even as they resist change. A study in 2002 by the Army Science Board found that the service’s transformation plans must include transformation of the personnel system. The reasoning is simply that the personnel system prevents current and future combat units from executing their increasingly complex missions effectively

The Pentagon can create units that are more ready and service members who are more satisfied by changing the personnel system. The key aspects of such change would be to introduce a unit replacement system to replace the IRS, 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., as found today in Delta Force and the Navy SEALs. Allowing officers and NCOs to manage their own careers, in conjunction with the elimination of counterproductive policies like “up or out,” would also allow individuals to develop true expertise in skills that are becoming increasingly important.

If Secretary Rumsfeld can succeed in transforming the DoD personnel system, he will also succeed in transforming the military.

But not only does this change have to come from the top down in the proposals that Rumsfeld and his staff will send to Congress for enactment. It also must occur from the bottom up, with the rank and file embracing personnel reform by understanding its connection with the complexity of shifting the military to a maneuver warfare posture. They must be allowed to the autonomy to seek responsibility and make decisions without massive bureaucratic oversight or damage to their careers.

A transformed personnel system will provide the U.S. military with the ability to maintain “ready now” forces. These forces will be able to deploy at a moment’s notice, ready to fight upon reaching the theater of operations. Other forces will be preparing for the deployment cycle, or drawing down, while providing other valuable services to support the force and its members. Transforming our personnel system to permit this ability will demand dramatic changes across the board. Transforming the personnel system will also significantly increase readiness and proficiency while lowering personnel stress and enhancing the satisfaction of individual service members.

Make no mistake about it: The transformation of the U.S. military will fail if Rumsfeld fails to vanquish the bureaucratic overseers of today’s personnel system.

Donald Vandergriff is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch and is the author of “Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs.” He can be reached at vandergriffdonald@usa.net.



04-24-03, 07:46 AM
There are some good things to be said for IRS, but overall, as it is presently implemented it brings some serious questions to the fore, many of which are addressed in the article. The "up or stay" phrase needs to better defined.

I always thought that 18 months or two years with a unit was too short a time, myself. Three years would be better. I don't know how many people I met, worked with and knew when I was in, but only a few stick in my mind these twenty odd years later. In six years time, I probably met and worked with hundreds of Marines at one time or another.

I became good at training and supervising people, but often times, that was about all I got done. My own career, duty requirements , training, professionalism and knowledge were impacted by the IRS methods, in my opinion. In one two year period, I remember seeing well over one hundred Marines come and go in a shop that had a Line T/O of 26. We never got over 35, and that was just for a couple of weeks. Most of them were fresh out of school, if not recruit training. An 18 month rotation for a C.O. ( A Light Bird, in the case I speak of ) was about enough time to get to know his people and start doing a good job...or not.

The career competetion can be a good thing, but as I saw and experienced it, it often became the only thing.

Keep in mind, my knowledge and experience in these matters is somewhat dated.

Perhaps a combination of the two systems, if implemented properly would work very well.