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. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

USMC Budget at War on the Rocks

I have a post up today on War on the Rocks about the coming budget battle from the USMC's perspective. The service makes both the naughty and the nice list. On the nice side, the USMC has positioned itself very well to retain a goodly portion of funding and structure as a 9/11 force:

The Marine Corps owes much of its good position to faithful service in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as usual, good public relations. The American people are justifiably shy of waging long-term land wars, but do not seem to associate the Marine Corps with those endeavors – even though the service has participated in every one. The service has successfully portrayed itself as a forward-deployed, quick-reaction force that is not designed to be a second land army. It has maintained currency as an amphibious force while not limiting itself solely to that mission. In fact, the Corps is looking forward not just to a return to the missions it performed before 9/11, but also to a significant increase in missions. The service is currently setting up reaction forces for EUCOM and AFRICOM, PACOM, and SOUTHCOM independent of ongoing Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) rotations as well as expanding security cooperation efforts around the globe. While the other services seem to be fighting their budget battles with new concepts and new papers about their strategic contributions, the Marine Corps seems to be focusing on getting back to being a forward-deployed force in readiness. The Corps’ budget will certainly shrink, but it also has an opportunity to increase its relevance.

But, it's mismanagement of the EFV program and the danger of the F-35B's high cost balance things out.

 On the acquisitions side, the Marine Corps still has a serious problem caused by the cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. While HQMC has already begun a program to acquire a replacement, the requirements are not very different from the EFV and the cost may well be just as harsh in 2020 as it was in 2011 when the EFV was cancelled. It is unlikely that the Department of Defense will accept another run at developing a new system that produces another massively expensive vehicle. The current Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV), procured in 1972, is 41 years old and has been upgraded twice. It cannot last forever. To be sure, it has been decades since direct amphibious assaults have been the preferred method of entry and the Marine Corps has other effective assets to perform the mission . But, in the event that an opposed amphibious landing becomes necessary, the lack of a modern, armored ship-to-shore connector may become the single point of failure for joint expeditionary operations. This is an issue not just for the Marine Corps. Historically, the Army has been called upon to conduct amphibious assaults as much or more than the Marine Corps, and if troops cannot gain a lodgment ashore, there is little need for Navy and Air Force efforts to overcome A2/AD systems. When discussing maneuver and movement, the Joint Operational Access Concept makes no distinction between Army and Marine forces. Gaining and Maintaining Access, an Army and Marine Corps concept, lists “amphibious ships and surface connectors” as “must possess” capabilities to conduct opposed and unopposed landings. Thus, a replacement for the AAV is a problem for, and should be seen as an investment for, the joint force as a whole.

If you haven't yet, check out War on the Rocks and their deep bench of excellent posters.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Putting the “Landing Force” in Air-Sea Battle: What Now, Lieutenant Colonel?

At The Basic School, almost every Marine officer has experienced the “What now, Lieutenant?” moment. You’ve sketched out a battle plan worthy of Rommel himself, and then a question is posed by a fellow student, an instructor raises a quizzical eyebrow, and you find yourself suddenly on the spot.

Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa’s recent award-winning essay Putting the “Landing Force” in Air-Sea Battle begs a similar question.

Certainly, the essay hits all the right buzzwords; “reverse A2/AD”, “away game”, “cross-domain synergy”, and features the obligatory historical case study in VADM Barbery’s amphibious landing at Lae in 1943. This case study is such an egregious case of apples and oranges that it bears remarking on. Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa’s thesis is that a MEU can seize islands to form “pockets of local domain superiority” but his historical case study is of a beachhead made, not on an island, but on the coast of Papua New Guinea, and where the landing of the Australian 9th Division, supported by Naval gunfire from 5 destroyers was only half the story; the other half being the immediate airborne seizure of the airfield in neighboring Nadzab by a U.S. parachute regiment to allow the follow-on insertion of a brigade from the Australian 7th Division by C-47 transport aircraft.
Map of the Battle of Lae

In the end, the defending Japanese brigade-size force elected to withdraw rather than fight, and managed to successfully evacuate the bulk of its combat strength; the Allied seizure of Lae was not due to a quick in-and-out insertion of a small, hardened MAGTF-style element, but was instead an attempted double-pincer envelopment utilizing airborne and amphibious troops with a 3-1 numerical advantage, supported by robust naval gunfire and air support. General McArthur and VADM Barbery certainly did establish “local domain superiority”, but it’s hard to see the relevance of that battle to the future operations being examined in the essay.

Let’s examine first a key contradiction inherent in this concept; it will supposedly create a defensive node within “the threat ring of the adversary” that is highly reliant on use of X-band radar, in an electromagnetic environment that is expected to be dirty; in other words, we anticipate the opponent will be using jamming and other countermeasures such as the Avtobaza system that Iran has alreadyacquired from Russia. These systems can both target and jam X-band fire-control radars and disrupt missile data links. This raises a serious question about the viability of Theater High Altitude Air Defense, (THAAD) “Iron Dome”, and Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) to function as advertised in the very environment which Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa himself believes will exist when we put our modified MEU ashore to create. Further, while he acknowledges early on that “we must attain local air and sea control long enough to offload the landing force,” he does not explain how that challenge will be resolved in an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) environment.

Which brings us to the next issue; actually putting a MEU ashore on any one of the various locations suggested; the Senkakus, Paracels, Spratlys, or one of the small islands in the Strait of Hormuz.

Let’s deal with these locations separately, starting with the Strait of Hormuz. The islands in question, Siri, Abu Musa, Farur, and Greater Tunb are little more than 5 miles wide, are host to Iranian military forces, and sit well within the shadow of mainland Iranian air defense missiles, radars, and anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) sites. So, what now, Lieutenant Colonel? How do we put the MEU ashore into what becomes effectively a five-mile square kill box which, in the case of Greater Tunb and Farur can easily be covered by mainland rocket artillery such as the Fajr-3? In the ramp-up to any offensive US actions, the Strait will likely be mined; island garrisons will likely make sure the beaches and all mobility lanes are seeded with IEDs or conventional anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. Assuming that we can get the landing force ashore (and either V-22’s through the Iranian air defense artillery network or landing craft past fast-boat swarms, submarines, ASCM, and mines would be tricky) one then wonders - getting the MEU ashore accomplishes what, exactly? It creates an “Iron Dome” over, well, itself. It takes a full MAGTF out of the fight, without functionally tying up any significant enemy force. It leaves them vulnerable to continuous pounding from mainland rocket artillery on two islands, and (if the Iranians are smart and position Fajr-3 or equivalent units on each of the four islands) interlocking indirect fires from multiple directions on any of the islands. One the plus side, it would create an “unsinkable battleship” armed with LRASM to defeat Iranian ships out to 600 NM, which does a nice job of covering the entire Strait – until you run out of missiles (an 8-cell launcher weighs 13 tons – empty!) Or until you run out targets worth shooting; the Iranian Navy only has 5 frigates and 3 corvettes! Opening the aperture, another 26 targets may present themselves if Sina and Houdong-class missile boats are considered; the rest of its forces are either underwater, or so small and numerous that the cost of a LRASM (which are still not operational, despite the fact that Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa talks about “leveraging current capacities”) would not justify a launch.  Bottom line; there are cheaper, faster, less risky ways to destroy Iranian missile boats than putting a modified MEU ashore on a tiny island.

Now let’s make a literary “Pivot to Asia” to address the viability of this operational concept in the South China Sea.

Operational Concepts - OPNAVINST 5401.9
It’s worth pausing to address the idea of operational concepts; they are what links technical and tactical innovations (singly, or, quite often, combined) into a method of achieving strategic aims. In OPNAVINST 5401.9 such concepts are described as:
A visualization of future operations that describes how a commander, using military art and science, might employ capabilities necessary to meet future challenges and explore potential opportunities.
However, just as there are offensive and defensive “plays” in most sports, so there can be operational concepts which work better in the defense than the offense, or vice versa. 

And in fact, the operational concept which Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa proposes is quite sound; from the perspective of the home team. In fact, a similar concept was the cornerstone of my 2011 thesis for the Indonesian Navy’s Command and Staff College: Konsepsi Pembangunan Postur TNI AL Masa Depan Yang Mampu Mengatasi Ancaman Maritim Guna Mendukung Pertahanan Dan Keamanan Nasional Dalam Rangka Mewujudkan Pertahanan Regional – English translation – “Development Concept for the Indonesian Navy to Enable it to Overcome Future Maritime Threats to National Security in the Framework of Developing Regional Defense.”

In that report, I explained how Indonesia (and in the future regional partners such as neighboring Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines)  could utilize 12-15 small, strategically placed islands armed with Akash, Mistral, and Brahmos missiles to prevent incursions by adversary naval or air forces at a relatively low cost to equip and maintain. Also, fairly easy to set up, and to make mutually supporting – if you emplace them as defensive measures on your sovereign territory far in advance of any conflict.

What Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa proposes – standing up a single similar strongpoint, unsupported by others, in the middle of an air and sea environment where the adversary will be dominant in one or more domains and where there are multiple claimants to recognition under international law (none of which includes the United States) – would be neither easy to set up nor to maintain long enough to be strategically relevant. A good defensive play for the home team; a terrible offensive play for the away team.

A look at the map gives us an idea why.

Take the Senkakus – the largest is less than 3 square miles in size – and sits well within the range ring of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) rocket artillery. It’s also within the air defense range of the S-300 and S-400, both of which are owned by the Chinese, and their diesel submarines could operate freely within our notional LRASM range ring.

Thus, aerial and surface re-supply of any forces ashore would be highly problematic. There are slightly larger islands in the Paracels and Spratlys – some of which are already garrisoned by PLA forces, and one can be certain that those forces could and would be rapidly increased in the ramp-up to any military engagement in the area.

Range Ring of the DF-21 Missile
These islands are safe from shorter-range rocket artillery, but well within striking distance of the DF-21. More problematic is the sheer number of islands in both the Paracels and Spratlys. The MAGTF envisioned by Lieutenant Colonel Tlaba can occupy exactly one, leaving over 30 islands (in the Paracels) or over 100 islands in the Spratly’s open for the adversary to plant a similar force. Of course, China and several other interested players already maintain garrisons in the Spratlys and the Paracels.

Again, the first challenge is getting the MEU within striking distance of any of these locations during a time of war; all the Asian navies field significant submarine forces and most are building more. The anti-ship version of the DF-21 threatens, as do naval mines and preponderant numbers of small vessels (122 missile boats being the greatest threat). All the islands are well within striking range of the Chinese air forces; the PLA-Navy can bring over 100 strike aircraft to the fight; the PLA-Air Force could easily triple that with plenty of reserves. And of course, this operational concept, as it is written, requires the landing force to get ashore before it can employ any significant air-to-air or anti-ship capability. Supposing that, by some miracle, our Marines make it ashore, and their radar is not degraded by adversary jamming.

Now, the problem is the opposite of the Strait of Hormuz; instead of too few good targets, they will have too many. Our THAAD missiles may knock down 3-6 attacking aircraft before they are overwhelmed by even a small “swarm” attack; the “Iron Dome” will take out about 20 missiles, but then it, too, runs out of Shlitz. The notional MAGTF lacks ground-to-ground rocket artillery to compete with anything the adversary has emplaced on any of the many neighboring islands, and it’s clear that even if allowed ashore, it can swiftly be wiped out by a fairly small element of a potential adversary’s forces.

I’ll address the myth of “parity” in a future post; for now, while I applaud Lieutenant Colonel Tlaba for putting forward an idea in support of the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), the fact that it was selected for the Lieutenant Colonel Earl “Pete” Ellis award makes me wonder if senior leaders might seriously consider it a good idea. It’s not. This might have been a revolutionary concept back when Lieutenant Colonel Ellis was still alive; today it’s a recipe for disaster.

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

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

DEF2013, Intrapreneurship and Learning to Innovate Within the System

Over Columbus Day weekend a group of almost 100 individuals from vastly different backgrounds came together for the inaugural Defense Entrepreneurs Forum 2013 ( to discuss innovation in the military and how to affect positive change in a large organization.  Held at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the DEF2013 audience consisted of military members (from midshipman to general officer), civilian engineers, academics, entrepreneurs, journalists and students.  But most importantly, participants were there because they believed in the cause, not simply because they were getting a free weekend in Chicago.  With the government shutdown cancelling official travel plans most participants paid their own way to DEF2013.  They chose to spend three days with strangers, connected by a passion for their country and a dedication to improving the organizations that are tasked with her defense.  This was not a place for detractors – every attendee was committed to being constructive and pragmatic in his or her approach to the toughest problems facing today’s military.

DEF2013 isn’t the first conference to focus on military innovation, but it was unique in several ways.  First, it was organized independently by a group of officers without official DoD support and with little funding from external sources, allowing the conference to remain free of influence from special interests.  But perhaps more importantly, rank was literally removed from the room.  Uniforms were absent and participants wore badges that identified a person only by name and organization.  Although everyone maintained the proper customs and courtesies, the universal commitment to the cause and the informal setting allowed attendees of every rank to fully participate and be heard.  For a long weekend at least, the lack of an overt display of rank allowed for a more free exchange of ideas.  

The military blogosphere has been saturated with recaps of this ground-breaking event (check here and here) and most of the talks are available on the DEF2013 YouTube channel. So rather than give a full after action here are some of key takeaways from the weekend that young innovative Marines and Sailors might find useful.

-“Know your stuff.”  First and foremost, be tactically and technically proficient in everything that you do.  Being good at your day job helps build credibility and trust.  Working hard to ensure proficiency will poise senior leaders to be more receptive when you throw a ‘crazy’ idea out there.  Second, be right.  If you have an idea that goes against the existing conventional wisdom, ensure that it is well-reasoned and represents real improvement on the status-quo.  

-“Good execution trumps a great idea.”  It is easy to pontificate around the water cooler or to write an article on one of the dozens of military blogs.  But an idea is just that, a bunch of words on paper.  Put some skin in the game and try to implement your idea.  It may not turn out exactly as you envisioned, but you’ll get further along than by doing nothing.

-“Junior Leader Innovation isn’t new.” Any leader can rattle off dozens of times that a young Marine has come up with an innovative idea and improved a unit.  In a great talk available online, LCDR BJ Armstrong tells the story of Vice Admiral William Sims who, while a lowly Lieutenant in the early 20thcentury, changed Naval gunnery foreverno small task in the age of the battleship.  

LT Sims’ real success wasn’t in the development of the technique (he stole that from the British), but in his ability to convince the stodgy bureaucracy to implement change.  To do so he was willing to take big risks and gamble with his career, and in what he would later call the “rankest kind of insubordination” he wrote directly to the President of the United States.  

Then President Theodore Roosevelt‘s response?  “Give him entire charge of target practice for eighteen months, do exactly as he says.  If he does not accomplish anything in that time, cut off his head and try someone else.”  

The rest, they say, is history.  

File:William sowden sims.jpg
As a young Lieutenant, Vice Admiral Sims affected change within the Navy, although he later admitted that writing directly to the President was “the rankest kind of insubordination.”

-“Intrapreneurship versus entrepreneurship.” Changing an organization, especially one like the military, is difficult to do from the inside.  Its even harder to do from the outside.  In another great presentation Major Peter Munson (USMC, ret) made an analogy between predators and those best equipped to affect change from the inside.  Be tactically proficient, know when to strike, and when you do, execute with extreme violence of action.  

In another story about great intrapreneurship, a participant relayed the story of two innovative officers who worked for change in the Army just before World War II.  In 1919 the two men, one an infantry officer the other a cavalryman, discussed a better way to use the tank, then a nascent technology.  However, an article proposing an alternative to the existing doctrine did not go over well, and the Army Chief of Infantry himself threatened the young author with court-marshal if he published again.  The author of the offending article?  A young Major Dwight Eisenhower, then with only five years in the Army.  The cavalry officer?  Lieutenant Colonel George Patton, who went on to become one of the most accomplished and innovative tank commanders in World War II.  

                                         What if Eisenhower had left the Army after being told to “shut up and color”?

-“Relationships matter.”  For better or worse, relationships matter, no matter what business you are in.  Having a champion, someone who can provide top cover, is often just as important as a great idea.  Change can be threatening to an organization and being able to convince people otherwise takes skill and relationship building.  More often than not someone in a position of power must take notice to facilitate change.  For junior innovators this means learning to establish strong personal relationships based on trust.  For mid-level and senior leaders this means looking after young innovators.  

Why is DEF important to the Marine Corps?
Interwar periods are traditional times for innovation.  Pete Ellis wrote his seminal work Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, in 1921, twenty years before it became the foundation of the Marine Corps’ island hopping campaign in World War II.  The transport of troops via helicopter, also known as vertical envelopment, was developed between World War II and the Korean War.  More recently, in 1989 a young Captain John Schmitt wrote FMFM-1 “Warfighting”, codifying the Marine Corps adoption of Maneuver Warfare as doctrine.  

Somewhere in our battletested Corps is the next Pete Ellis or John Schmitt.  Nurturing these young innovative leaders is imperative to ensuring the continued success and relevance of our Corps.  As we transition from of 12 years of combat, organizations and movements like DEF will help facilitate the type of thinking that we need to excel on the next battlefield.  We at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum don’t claim to have all the answers, but we're working to ask the right questions.  

Capt Mike "Squirrel" Christman is an AH-1W pilot and a board member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum 2013.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

BTTF 5: Retaining Female Talent

This post is part of a series that will continue over the course of the next few months. The series will look at the future of the Marine Corps after the end of Operating Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It was inspired by Robert Kosloski’s article in the Naval War College Review, “Marching Towards the Sweet Spot: Options for the Marine Corps in a Time of Austerity,” (Available Here) Mr. Kosloski has also written for this blog. It will include guest posts and posts by Gazette blog authors. This series is being organized by Capt Jonathan Rue, USMCR, who writes at Gunpowder and Lead and the Guardian, and Capt Brett Friedman, USMC, who writes here and at Grand Blog Tarkin.

Capt Lindsay L. Rodman, USMC is a judge advocate currently assigned to the Office of the Legal Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The opinions presented below are hers alone, and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Joint Staff or the Department of Defense.

The Marine Corps is headed toward a time of fiscal austerity, and is therefore going through the task of force reshaping, considering new combinations of battalions, and even tinkering with the size and composition of squads and fire teams.  In separate rooms within the Pentagon, other officers and senior civilians are sitting together discussing better integration of women into the military, thinking about issues of sexual assault, combat integration, and physical requirements.  One concern pervades both of these conversations: how do we leverage the talent we have, through engaged leadership and other programs, to get the most out of the Marines who remain after the drawdowns?   

While the Marine Corps is likely to change dramatically as drawdown policies are finalized and begin to take place, the proportion of female representation within the Corps is likely to remain the same.  The Marine Corps has historically had the lowest representation of women among the services, recently reaching around 6%.  By contrast, the average military-wide has been between 14 and 15% for the past 15 years, and may even be headed slightly downward.  Neither number has changed significantly, despite dramatic changes in force structure due to war.  [For historical figures further back, see here.]  The lifting of the combat restriction might help recruit women, and perhaps media discussion of the military sexual assault problem will harm female recruitment.  In the end, it looks like a wash, especially because it does not appear that there is a movement within the manpower system to set recruitment quotas at different levels, and our recruiters are Marines – they will meet the standard wherever it is set.  

In light of the Marine Corps’s hard work on sexual assault issues and lifting the combat restriction on women, senior leaders should consider whether the gender composition of our Corps has struck the right balance.  It is a fair question: the mission of the Marine Corps does not appeal to many women, and the physical requirements exclude many others.  No one is interested in degrading capabilities or altering the mission of the Marine Corps.  Having more women is not an end to itself – it must actually improve the organization as a whole.

Fiscal austerity, drawdowns, budget cuts, and force-shaping will require the Marine Corps to “do more with less.”  The key to success in the long run will be retaining the most talented Marines.  Fewer Marines of the same talent level may perform at a lower level, but fewer of the most talented Marines will be able to maintain the readiness we require as a nation.  The Marine Corps’s primary manpower goal should be to calibrate the Service to retain the very best – not just to make numbers.   

Looking at the status quo, we should ask ourselves whether we are doing well in retention generally, but especially when it comes to women.  There are many relevant indicators, and many areas in which the Marine Corps and the military writ-large could do better at data collection, but the clearest indicator is that in both the enlisted and officer ranks, women have always been heavily concentrated toward the bottom – at the highest ranks of the Marine Corps only about 1-2% are female; at the lowest ranks the number is much closer to 10%.  There is a dramatic drop-off at the field grade ranks among officers.
There have only been about 40 female active duty lieutenant colonels at any given time in the entire active duty Marine Corps for at least the past 10 years.  The numbers have gotten worse: fifteen years ago the number was 58.  While women have increased slightly as a percentage of the overall Marine Corps population, more women are leaving or falling out as rank increases.  So why do women leave, while men stay?  For one reason or another, women are dissatisfied with the idea of continuing to serve.   As we face the impact of drawdowns and austerity, the Marine Corps should consider this a red flag.

There are many external societal reasons that women fall off of career ladders.  Many professions face similar problems.  However, Marine Corps women do not get stuck in middle management – they get out.  The Marine Corps is not entirely to blame for this phenomenon, but the Marine Corps does have control over its people, and therefore has control over potential solutions.  And, with a starting population of women that is so much smaller than those in general society, the numbers within the Marine Corps are that much more stark at the top when the Service fails to retain the best women.

The fact that there are few female leaders at the top really does affect the experience of the women coming up behind them.  There is one female general in the Marine Corps.  She is proportionally representative of the colonel’s pool the board was pulling from, but not the roughly 10% female class of Marine Corps second lieutenants each year (her class 27 years ago was probably closer to 5%).  Though the few who have made it to the top are all individually impressive, their sparse numbers actually make them seem like exceptions that prove the rule.  Seeing none at the top can motivate a woman to be a trailblazer.  Seeing one or two at the top, among dozens or even hundreds of men, when so many other women have obviously left, might make one wonder why she would want to be there.   

There is no single obvious solution – the problem stems from many interrelated factors.  This issue is intertwined with many of the other issues facing our military.  As the military continues to integrate gays and lesbians into the ranks, and to recognize their marriages and their families, the Services will also have to learn to accommodate the notion that not everyone’s spouse fits the paradigm of a traditional military wife.  As leaders continue to address the military sexual assault question, the discussion often devolves into consideration of the way women are treated within the military.  Especially with respect to lifting the combat restriction, the need for female leadership has been discussed and is apparent.  However, we do not have women represented in the leadership of most combat service support units, let alone new units previously not open to women.

The one obvious way forward is to put the onus on addressing this question where it belongs: on leadership as a whole, not the women at the top.  This idea is not novel – the best leaders I have personally encountered in the Marine Corps take this matter to heart.  However, I have also had more than one O-6 explain to me that women do not belong in the Marine Corps, including one who insisted on explaining this to me at length over lunch in Afghanistan.  I question the professionalism and propriety of colonels cornering company grades to explain to them that they do not belong.  In my own anecdotal experience, those officers tend to grow up in combat arms communities where they work with women so rarely that their opinions are theoretical.  However, I have also seen that those opinions have not hurt those leaders, and since the Marine Corps promotes at the top from the combat arms community in larger numbers, some of those colonels become generals.  

I have been extremely fortunate in my career to have had, for the most part, outstanding leadership.  I do not need female leadership to feel like I belong within a unit, or that I will be respected, and the onus is just as much on the male leadership as the female leadership to ensure that everyone works within a professional climate of respect.  The best leaders – male or female – are the ones who create a climate of earned trust: giving every Marine a fair shake and rewarding, commending, and advocating for promotion based on merit, achievement, and future potential.  

However, there is also an important symbolic significance to knowing that women are succeeding within the Marine Corps, and enjoying their service so much that they want to continue in their career, to the same degree as their male counterparts.  As women are deciding whether to stay or leave, they cannot help but look toward female leaders as they try to assess what their own futures might look like.  Unless the Marine Corps becomes a place where women succeed at a rate closer to their male counterparts, the Marine Corps will continue to lose talent, and stagnate in its integration of women in to the Service.