Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Open Letter to the Editor of the Marine Corps Gazette

Dear Colonel Keenan,

Please excuse my addressing you directly, but I feel it is imperative to draw your attention to two significant fallacies in your recent open letter to the Secretary of Defense.

The first is your assertion that arguments for the full integration of women in the military fall into two categories; yours, and those that are “uninformed opinion… agenda and ideologically driven.”

Let us be honest; there are two sides to this debate, and both are driven by agendas and ideology. Neither side, one hopes, bases their arguments solely on uninformed opinion; both sides seek to leverage expert testimony, scientific research, public opinion, and all other relevant material which will benefit their side of this war of ideas, a struggle which is, as our foundational publication Warfighting describes it, “fundamentally an interactive social process”, the very essence of a Clausewitzian Zweikampf.

The second and more troubling fallacy is your statement that “the issue is putting women in a position where the majority will fail unless standards are lowered.”

The key word here is “standard”. What is this elusive standard of which you write? Like many Marines and others on your side of this debate, that so-called “standard” appears to be the current Physical Fitness Test (PFT) and in particular, the dead-hang pullup, which is not, in fact a standard measurement of upper body strength in either the U.S. military as a whole or for many of our Coalition partners, and has only the most tenuous historical basis in the Corps itself.

Not a single Marine who charged machinegun nests in Belleau Wood, raised the flag on Iwo Jima, or marched back from the "Frozen Chosin" passed the “standard” that you and your supporters deem critical to success in combat, since the original USMC "Physical Readiness Test" (PRT) wasn't instituted until 1956 (MCO 6100.3) and pullups weren't part of the routine - chin-ups (forward grip) were mandatory, and 3 was the "satisfactory" score for a man (as were 25 situps in 2 minutes, and a half-mile jog with no time limit). The other signature events of the original PRT included the "duck waddle", the "broad jump", and the 440 yard dash, 21 pushups (it seems Chesty was already getting his) and 15 squat-thrusts for good measure.

The PFT as we know it didn’t come into existence until 1972 – and the very same scientist that you have picked as your “expert witness” this time around, Dr. Davis, wrote in 1981 that the PFT:
Represents a fitness battery consisting of Items whose capability of predicting combat readiness has not been scientifically validated… Scoring the fitness battery is arbitrary, and does not take into account such factors as environment, loads carried or numerous other factors that will no doubt have a profound impact on combat capabilities and readiness. Once again, the relationship between combat performance and scores on the PFT has neither been investigated nor established on the basis of any empirical work.
Between 1972 and 1996, tens of thousands of Marines used their minds and momentum to work “smarter and not harder”, kipping their way to high scores that rewarded rhythm versus brute strength to knock out the “standard”.

And today’s dead hang pullup? As an arbitrary measure of upper body strength, like a push-up, a bench press, or any other number of exercises, it’s a good measure of how well any person can perform that particular movement.

But I challenge anyone who prides themselves on doing 20 pullups during the PFT to join me in donning a minimal combat load consisting of a flak jacket with front, back, and side SAPI plates, an IFAK, a dump pouch, an M-4 with 6 loaded magazines, a Kevlar, and a full Camelbak and then jump on the bar, preferably in 100+ degree temperatures after we’ve run for at least 100 meters. I guarantee those impressively high numbers will vanish.

As for the “standards” for the Infantry Officers Course, again, one should be careful what we call a “standard”. Unlike the enlisted Infantry Course, which is designed to build Marines up into basic infantry personnel and from which over 50 female Marines have already graduated, the first goal of IOC is to break down any officer who lacks an extreme degree of willpower, physical strength, endurance, and determination. The Combat Endurance Test, that infamous introductory gauntlet for IOC should not be confused as anything but what it is – a selection mechanism to weed out approximately 25 percent of the officers who attempt it. This is not a standard infantry-training event; enlisted Marines do nothing comparable at the School of Infantry.  It does not teach the officers anything they have not already learned in TBS – it is specifically designed to eliminate a significant percentage of the individuals who attempt it. Why? Because thirty percent of officers graduating from TBS will request an infantry MOS as their first choice. That’s approximately 510 officers, and the Corps only has a need for about 350 Second Lieutenants to serve as infantry platoon commanders. The Combat Endurance Test and other make-or-break aspects of the IOC curriculum are designed to winnow the number of candidates down to the Corps’ requirements. It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to pass the Combat Endurance Test to be a great infantry officer – the course has only existed for the last 35 years, meaning that none of the storied officers of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, or Vietnam ever had to pass that particular test. Yet, somehow, they managed to lead their Marines to victory in battle.

Standards change; physical standards, standards of dress, standards of behavior. We no longer powder our hair or carry swords at all times; we no longer challenge officers from other services to duels. We don’t physically abuse recruits, we don’t haze our fellow Marines. We don’t sing racially or sexually offensive cadences anymore, and thankfully, we no longer do “the duck waddle”. And yet, the Corps is stronger today than it has ever been.

So, Colonel Keenan, I will close this with a few of your own words – “the issue is not women in combat – they have performed magnificently, as well you know.”

They have, Sir, performed magnificently when and where it counted; killing the enemy, saving the lives of their fellow fighters, and giving their lives in the Long War. Let’s recognize that performance by opening the closed doors, breaking the glass ceilings, and acknowledging that potentially updating arbitrary and outdated standards is not the same as lowering them.

Most Respectfully,
Major Edward H. Carpenter, USMC

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Incentives Matter: Women and Pull-Ups

The Issue

The Marine Corps currently allows female Marines when taking their Physical Fitness Test (PFT) to choose between the flexed-arm hang and pull-ups, each selection providing a possible 100 points.  The current policy creates an incentive for women to stick with the flexed-arm hang because it is easier to achieve a higher score than doing pull-ups.  If we continue to present both options as weighted equally, women will have little incentive to get up on the bar and learn how to do a pull-up.  Since we are in a period of transition as we open the ground combat arms to women; it may be appropriate to maintain the flexed-arm hang alongside pull-ups.  However, we should do so in a way that gives women an incentive to do pull-ups, not continue with the flexed-arm hang. 

Providing the choice between two equally weighted options is antithetical to our culture because it encourages an attitude of and eventual failure among females, especially those considering the combat arms.  Instead of being given a mission and expected to succeed, old stereotypes are reinforced and an attitude of seeking the lower of two denominators is encouraged.  Studies have shown a correlation between an ability to do a pull-up and certain combat tasks.  There is no correlation between getting a 100 on the flexed-arm hang and being able to lift a Mk-19 for mounting on a gun truck, or dragging a 180 lbs comrade out of a kill zone.

There will be nothing more destructive to the idea that women can do pull-ups than allowing them to choose between getting 100 points for a 70 second flexed-arm hang, and 100 points for 8 pull-ups.  If it remains easier to achieve a higher score on the PFT by exerting the same or less effort by allowing the flexed-arm hang, we create an incentive for women to stick with the flexed-arm hang.  As a result of societal myths regarding the “inability” of women to learn how to do pull-ups, creating this incentive is at the expense of a good faith encouragement to do pull-ups, and it will reinforce biases against women.  True or not, after letting the two tests exist side by side, with no incentive to attempt the pull-ups beyond personal satisfaction—and frankly speaking, pride—we may end up reinforcing the belief, whether one believes it or not, that women are biologically indisposed to do pull-ups.  When women are still not able to do pull-ups as a collective after a period of time with the option to do pull-ups, most who think women can't do pull-ups will point to this as evidence for their opinion.

We can do better.  We can provide a solution that creates an incentive to do pull-ups, while not overburdening the females in the Marine Corps, or new recruits. 

The Solution

There is an idea for a PFT floating around, where the 70 second flexed-arm hang will be worth a max of 60 points, but if choose to do pull-ups, the first pull-up is worth 65.  It is still a Marine’s choice test, the difference being that each pull-up is worth 5 points, like the male PFT, except for the first pull-up that will start the woman at 65 points, a higher score than the flexed-arm hang.   

This test structure is a common sense solution in the interim which addresses the current skewed incentive to female Marines.  It will encourage those who can’t get one pull-up to get to one pull-up so they can get a higher score than they would with the flexed-arm hang.  It is far less draconian than a sudden, unexpected all or nothing requirement.  In many ways it keeps faith with our standards, the policy objectives laid down by both Congress and the current Executive administration, and our Marines.  

If for one pull-up an individual gets more points than with a 70 second flexed-arm hang, women will move over to the pull-up standard to get those 5 extra points to remain competitive.  They will find a way.  They will adapt over time.  The current problem is not a biological inability to do pull-ups, it is a lack of knowledge of how to properly train and prepare for the PFT.  Most men have always been able to do a pull-up most of their lives.  Most women have never been able to do one, and so getting to one is probably daunting.  If the institution provides an unavoidable incentive to do that first pull-up, and units exercise appropriate leadership, and the males in those units show appropriate camaraderie and encouragement, i.e. help; within a year you’ll see most women doing one pull-up.

And once they have that one pull-up they will make two.

Does it sound harsh?  It is the easiest way to transition without sending mixed signals by establishing incentives that encourage continuation of the flexed-arm hang.  Will there be a dip in PFT scores?  Quite possibly, but the ship will right itself.  There can be a top down policy that establishes  a transition period of two years.  The policy will require promotion boards to take adjustment period into account, so long as “P/U” is somehow annotated next to a female’s lower than usual score (assuming it is lower than usual).  After two years, we can transition to the pull-up only standard.  If there is still an issue with new recruits at the Recruit Depots, then the policy can include a similar, maybe permanent incentive for junior enlisted who are not combat arms until they reach Corporal; the ability to do a pull-up being a requirement to make NCO.  Of course, pull ups should be a requirement to get into the Combat Arms.

What is best for our female Marines is to not create an incentive that maintains the status quo and encourages mediocrity.  What is best is giving them a difficult task, and trusting them to meet the standard.  This is the Marine Corps ethos.  We are a "force in readiness."  If we take our profession seriously, then we will encourage the sort of behaviors that will make Marines, regardless of their sex, combat ready.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

French Operations in Africa: Lessons for Future Leaders


As the Marine Corps builds up the Special-Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (MAGTF –CR) under Marine Forces Africa (MARFORAF), there are valuable lessons to be learned from recent French military operations on the African continent. This essay gives some background on France’s historic interventions in Africa and makes recommendations for future changes to the force structure of the SPMAGTF-CR.


Although the popular press in the United States often maligns the French military in general and France’s willingness to involve itself in Coalition military endeavors in particular, in reality, the French are both powerful and active in the realm of military affairs, especially when it comes to Africa.

France is the sixth most powerful nation in the world from a military perspective; in addition to a large and modern conventional force, it maintains a credible nuclear deterrent arsenal. Interestingly, the French military connection to its former colonial possessions in Sub-Saharan Africa does not extend to arm sales; while the French are the world’s fourth largest exporter of military hardware, (Rapport au Parlement, 10) exports to Sub-Saharan Africa account for only 5 percent of their total sales, and France has never made the Top Ten list of African arms suppliers compiled annually by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Historically, Russia and Ukraine have occupied the top spots on this list, but since 2006, China has edged out the former Soviet Republics as the preeminent supplier of military hardware in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Arms sales aside, France has long maintained strong economic, linguistic, cultural, political, and diplomatic ties to Sub-Saharan Africa, and this special relationship, dubbed  “la Françafrique” has existed to a greater or lesser extent from the end of the Colonial Era in the 1960s to the present day. The recurrent theme of la Françafrique most relevant to this paper is the French record of military involvement in Africa, which since the end of World War Two has dwarfed that of any other Western power, consisting of  37 major military operations in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa operations in the last 50 years (Griffin, 3) most of which have been conducted without the involvement of other Western states. France also maintains permanent bases in Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso, and has defense agreements with the governments of Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Comoros, Côte d' Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Djibouti, Gabon , Senegal, and Togo. (Livre Blanc, 55)

By contrast, the United States is a relative late-comer to the stage of modern warfare in Africa. Bloodied by Somali insurgents, the U.S. pulled out of Somalia in 1995, and like most of the world was a mere bystander to the genocide in Rwanda. There has been a U.S. presence in Djibouti, Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) since 2002, but its focus has largely been on combating militant Islam and piracy in the Horn of Africa. Popular pressure from KONY 2012 campaign resulted in the dispatch of about a hundred advisors from the Special Operations communities, but the elusive warlord remains at large. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and its Marine Component, Marine Forces Africa (MARFORAF) were stood up in 2008, but were based in Germany because no suitable home could be found for them on the African continent. In the context of first the “Long War” and then the “Pivot to Asia”, Africa remains, as former AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham observed in 2012, “not a part of the world that the United States military has focused on very intently.”

But that is likely to change. Africa has become a leading U.S. supplier of strategic natural resources, including oil, gas, and minerals, with Angola and Nigeria being two important suppliers of oil. The rise of non-state actors, including violent extremists and transnational criminal organizations engaged in trafficking drugs, people, and weapons is another reason, and is linked to the third driver of change; an increased emphasis on human security and the “Responsibility to Protect.” (Brown, 6-10) This latter has been described by David E. Brown as:

A post-Cold War paradigm that has reshaped the traditional notion of national security by arguing that a people-centered view of security is necessary for national, regional, and global stability.

Combatant Commanders like General Ham and his successor, General David M. Rodriguez , may be the key to changing this traditional perspective;  according to a recent RAND report, in the future, “the process of defining what U.S. overseas presence is needed is left largely to the regional theater commanders in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Central and South America.” This same report then completely ignores Africa in favor of discussing the Middle East and Asia as potential focuses for U.S. military efforts.

For their part, the French Ministry of Defense observes that Europe and Africa remain a lower military priority for the U.S., and suggest that that the European states most directly affected by Africa’s stability, and “disposant des moyens d’en assumer charge” (possessing the means to take charge) should plan to play the greater role in security for the African continent. (Livre Blanc, 29)  For their part in this role, the French government plans a quick-reaction force of 1,500 ground troops, including armored vehicles and helicopters, which can deploy within 7 days anywhere within 3,000 kilometers of the French mainland, or of a host-nation base, of which France has several to choose from in Africa. This force would be supported by an air component consisting of 10 fighter/attack aircraft and additional tactical transport and reconnaissance planes. The French military plans to use airstrikes to stall enemy advances in the 7-day window before their ground forces arrive. (Livre Blanc, 91) This force is intended to provide France with the capability to react autonomously to security crisis in Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa, indicating the significance placed on response time to emergent security issues. This construct even includes a naval component; not surprising, considering that three quarters of Francophone African countries border the Atlantic Ocean.

Sound familiar? It should. A “Security Cooperation MAGTF” was envisioned in the 2008 Operational Concept The Long War: Send in the Marines. Renamed the SPMAGTF-SC in MARADMIN 011/11, this notional MAGTF contained an infantry battalion, a Combat Logistics Battalion, and an Air Combat Element (ACE) as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Notional Security Cooperation MAGTF (The Long War: Send in the Marines)
What is currently in place, instead, is a SPMAGTF –CR (Crisis Response) comprised of 550 Marines from Third Battalion, Eighth Marines, supported by an ACE consisting of a Medium Tiltrotor Squadron of MV-22s augmented with2 KC-130Js. This force represents an increase of nearly 50 percent over the original SPMAGTF-CR, (which was stood up with a reinforced Reconnaissance company and 6 MV-22s) but it may fall short of what is required.

According to Expeditionary Force 21, Special Purpose MAGTFs:

…will assume a greater role in crisis response and generate greater capacity for forward presence in more locations. Based on GCC requirements, these organizations are tailored appropriately to conduct security cooperation activities with partner nations in order to develop interoperability, facilitate access, build defense and security relationships, gain regional understanding, and position for immediate response to episodic crises.

Further, according to this publication, “for the EUCOM/AFRICOM AORs, the goal is a single seabased MAGTF trained for both aggregated and disaggregated employment.” But is this future vision or the force currently in place correct based on the recent history of military operations in Sub-Saharan Africa? Missions executed not by the U.S. or NATO, but on a unilateral basis by French forces? Answering that question is the goal of this essay.


To answer that question, it is useful to look to the French experience in two recent military operations in Francophone Africa; Opération Serval against Islamic and Taureg separatists in Mali, and Opération Sangaris against militias in the CAR.

The genesis for both operations was similar; in December 2012 and January 2013, Muslim military forces in both CAR and Mali mounted fast-moving campaigns against government forces. CAR petitioned France for support, but their request was rejected; within 4 months, the rebel forces would overrun the capital of Bangui and install their leader as the head of a transitional government.

In Mali, on the other hand, with Islamic and Taureg forces days away from seizing that country’s capital of Bamako, and with the coalition-building efforts of the United Nations and the African Union too slow to react, France intervened unilaterally, using Mirage jets and Gazelle attack helicopters to stop a column of enemy technicals that was moving on Bamako. The rebel offensive stalled, an although the French lost one Gazelle to anti-aircraft fire, sufficient time was bought to allow French units from Chad, Côte d' Ivoire and Senegal to converge on Bamako and form a contingency defensive force. Within 3 weeks, the French had a brigade-sized force engaged in systematically clearing the enemy from the towns of Timbuktu and Gao through a series of ground attacks and airborne assaults. Following that, French airborne and armored units, along with their African Union counterparts began the slow work of clearing the terrorist sanctuaries in the Ifoghas mountain range. (Tramond and Seigneur, 42) This rapid and sizable intervention stabilized Mali; the same cannot be said of neighboring CAR.

At the same time the French were clearing the last of the major Malian cities of Islamic separatists, rebel forces in CAR overran the capital of Bangui, and the “Seleka” militias, officially disbanded after their success against the government forces began a campaign of killing (often by machete), looting and rape in both the cities and the countryside. Christian “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) militias rose up in response to the Seleka, and by December 2013, with hundreds dying in the capital, French President François Hollande authorized a 1200-strong intervention force under the mandate of UN Security Council resolution 2127, and visited them less than a week later, declaring that “Il était temps d’agir.” (“It is time to act.”)

Today, despite the actions of the French and African forces to disarm militia groups and stop the violence, CAR remains in chaos. The Christian anti-balaka militias gained an upper hand after the disarming of the Seleka by international forces, resulting in a mass exodus of Muslims into neighboring countries to avoid the killings. Contrast this with Mali, where the enemy threat has now been functionally suppressed, Chad has withdrawn its troops, and a combined French/German brigade –sized force will take up the mantle of training the Malian army to handle future conflicts.

Lessons Learned

The French experience in Opérations  Serval and Sangaris should lead us to conclude that the probable enemy force will be similar to the forces that we’ve previously encountered in Afghanistan; light infantry with little access to armor, but capable of  using “technicals” (light wheeled vehicles) to move quickly and employ anti-aircraft weapons. They are also likely to disappear into the populace or inaccessible hinterlands if pressured. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have been less prevalent in these operations than during Coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have been used and French soldiers were killed by these devices.

Terrain can and will vary from desert to mountain to jungle; and the tyranny of distance has the potential to be challenging in Africa, a continent nearly four times the size of the United States. The conflict zones in Mali and CAR have often been well beyond the range of assault support range and combat radius of un-refueled MEU shipboard assets.

The mission will likely begin as a “block, drive back and clear” series of operations, with the final phase running concurrent with providing security and engaging in the civil/military operations necessary in a post-conflict environment.

In these phases, armor and close-air support were vital to French success; armored cars, light tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles were required to win the fight, sometimes after crossing distances of 3,000 kilometers from their port of debarkation to the battlefield. Expeditionary logistics and communications proved a particular challenge, according to Maj. Gen. Olivier Tramond, Director of the French Army Doctrine Center:

The huge dimensions of the Malian theater are well beyond the theoretical area of operations for a single brigade. The broadband global area network and other satellite communications systems proved indispensable but are not in the standard army inventory and cannot be used on the move.

Tactical and strategic airlift has been another issue; prior to Opération Sangaris, France was obliged to solicit strategic and tactical lift from several allied nations, including the United States and other members of NATO. Ultimately, this resulted in British C-17’s and Belgian C-130’s supporting the operation. The current SPMAGTF-CR already has sufficient tactical lift in its complement of KC-130J and MV-22 aircraft, but operational planners must coordinate strategic lift with external agencies. While the U.S. Air Force possesses significant strategic assets and would normally be the “go-to” agency for this type of support, the French experience suggests that obtaining strategic lift from European partners may give such allies an “easy” means of supporting a military operation without committing combat troops themselves, and thereby be a useful tool for coalition-building.

Finally, the response time (and size of the response force) in the case of emerging crises, especially those involving violent extremism or ethnic violence, will play a critical role in determining the outcome of the situation, for better or worse. Situations can go from bad to worse in a matter of days; months of deliberate planning time or movement of forces will not suffice to forestall instability and human tragedy. The timeline of both the conflict in CAR and Mali, along with earlier examples in Rwanda shows that response must come within days of the initial events, not weeks or months.


The notional SPMAGTF described in Expeditionary Force 21 is supposed to “conduct security cooperation activities with partner nations… and position for immediate response to episodic crises.” Based on lessons learned from recent French operations in Africa, our current regional SPMAGTF-CR structure is probably not sufficient to excel in either capacity, lacking in particular the combat airpower required to blunt enemy ground attacks and buy time for U.S. or African ground forces to aggregate and engage.

Recognizing that speed, surprise, security, sustainment, and concentration of effects are the modern military principles (Van Avery) most applicable to crisis response in Africa, the future Marine presence in Africa should look more like the notional SPMAGTF-SC envisioned by General Jones in The Long War, with the addition of the AH-1Z and “Harvest Hawk” KC-130Js needed to execute offensive air operations in accordance with those principles.

To engage in ground combat, we’ll need a light armored presence, and bringing in the required number of vehicles from ship-based  inventories may not be feasible, especially as ship-based assets may not be readily available to meet an emergent need, especially if tensions continue to rise around the Black Sea. Engaging with French and African states to obtain the rights to preposition vehicles and stores at existing French bases in Sub-Saharan Africa (possibly in exchange for providing a more robust communication architecture in the region) would be one way to overcome this challenge.


U.S. commanders acknowledge that Africa has so far received short shrift from the American military, and French defense officials don’t believe that is likely to change.

But there are political, military and economic factors that will likely result in a greater future U.S. involvement in African security affairs, and the Marine Corps is positioned to remain the “go-to” force for both security cooperation and crisis response in the region.

In planning for operations across the spectrum in Africa, the SPMAGTF commander will create stability on a daily basis by administering an “ounce of prevention”, using their culturally and linguistically knowledgeable troops to engage in theater security cooperation and build the capacity of African allies. But they will also be ready at a moment’s notice to deliver “a pound of cure” if armed violence breaks out.

Drawing on the lessons of the past, strategic-level military and political leaders of the future will no doubt be aware of how very quickly violence in Africa can spiral out of control, and what a devastating effect that can have on current and future stability, and will therefore be quick to utilize their “Force in Readiness” to forestall genocides, the takeover of weak states by fundamentalist religious groups, and similar tragedies which have played out all too often in recent years upon the African stage.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said “Prenez du temps de délibérer, mais quand le moment pour l'action est arrivé, cessez de penser et entrez.” - “Take the time to deliberate, but when the moment to act arrives, stop thinking and take action .” It’s time for the Marine Corps to do the deliberate planning and preparation required so that next time action in Africa is required, we are prepared to engage to decisively overcome the threat and secure U.S. interests. If we do not, we will likely see the mantle of security guarantor retained by France, and the resulting regional influence and strategic benefits will continue to accrue to them, instead of the U.S.

Maj Edward H. “UTAH” Carpenter is an Aviation Logistician and Foreign Area Officer.


Livre Blanc: Défense et Sécurité Nationale, Ministère de la Défense, 2013

Rapport au Parlement 2013 sur les exportations d’armement de la France, Délégation à l’information et à la communication de la Défense, 2013

Hollande à Bangui: « Il était temps d’agir » pour éviter « un carnage »,  Libération, December 10, 2013, accessed at : afrique-du-sud_965393

Maj. Gen. Tramond, Olivier and Lt. Col. Seigneur, Phillipe, Early Lessons from France’s Operation Serval in Mali, ARMY, June 2013, pages 40-43

Brown, David E., AFRICOM at 5 Years: The Maturation of a New U.S. Combatant Command, U.S. Army War College Press, 2013

Griffin, Christopher, French Military Interventions in Africa: French Grand Strategy and Defense Policy since Decolonization, Paper prepared for the International Studies Association 2007 Annual Convention, 2007

The Long War: Send in the Marines, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, 2008

LCDR Van Avery, Christopher E. 12 New Principles of Warfare, Armed Forces Journal, July 2007 accessed at:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

This is Not an Air War!

            As the Marine Corps ends over a decade of sustained combat operations and is reduced to its lowest force structure in recent history, leaders at all levels need to be more adaptive than ever. The Marine Corps has faced similar problems in the past but still managed to drive excellence and innovation in the process (i.e. amphibious warfare doctrine in the 1930s). Facing tough challenges ahead, it is an ideal time to think seriously about the ways the Marine Corps will ensure it continues to identify and spread excellence throughout the organization. 

Two Stanford professors, Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao have written a thought provoking new book, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling For Less, that addresses this problem. The term “scaling” is not a Silicon Valley buzz word; it is something that our most innovative leaders do as a matter of course. It involves spreading excellence from those who have it to those who do not. An easy example to conceptualize this term is entry level Marine Corps training. The Marines start with the same basic raw material as any other service, but those who emerge afterwards are completely unique in their beliefs and actions. Another example of a scaling effort would be the efforts of the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned to take the best practices of units fighting in Helmand Province and spreading them to other Marines across the organization.  

Scaling Up Excellence thoughtfully examines both success stories and failures in the battles to spread excellence. Pulling no punches (United Airlines takes quite a beating), the authors demonstrate that rolling out snappy PowerPoint presentations or conducting one-off “training stand-downs” will not work (these quick-fixes are equated to dropping a few “smart-bombs” and declaring victory). As the authors say in the first chapter this is more like a ground war than an air war. Scaling is a long-term effort requiring tremendous energy and perseverance.

            Sutton and Rao have distilled the hard learned lessons of scaling into five crisp principles and seven mantras that are elaborated on through very interesting case studies.  

            One principle, described by the authors as “cutting the cognitive load”, describes the need to relentlessly cut complexity during these endeavors, but in doing so sometimes cuts go too deep. Consider the route that some organizations take to eliminate middle managers as an organization grows. While cutting what may appear to be unnecessary levels of supervision may seem like a good idea at first, this often results in employees being unable to function effectively. The authors cite good data on why managing teams (without sub-team managers) that grow past seven and into double digits becomes increasingly ineffective (for more on this see George Miller’s magical number concept) Large enterprises are often too complex to operate in with unstructured teams.
            To elaborate on this point the authors use the example of the Marine Corps fire team. As described by James Webb in a 1972 Marine Corps Gazette article, the smallest Marine fighting unit in World War II was the infantry squad, which Webb referred to as the “12-man mob” because one leader could not provide adequate control over so many people in combat. To fix this problem the squad was broken down into three, four-man fire teams, each with their own leader. Battlefield performance improved because the squad leader was able to focus on his team leaders instead of trying to direct all of the members of the squad.    

            The complex issues facing the military are not abating. The need for continuous innovation and adaptation to face these challenges and threats is paramount. For all Marine leaders, be they at the fire team or general officer level, reading Scaling Up Excellence is an excellent starting point to deepen your understanding of this process. The authors end with practical advice on how to scale effectively and demonstrate that organizational success depends not on how good some of its people are, but how those with excellence can spread their beliefs and actions to those that need them.