Friday, June 22, 2012

Hannibal or Marius?

It seems like every six months or so, another blog post or article is published decrying the US military’s broken personnel system. Here’s one. Here’s another. The most recent, and one of the most powerful, appeared this week over at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. While all of these articles focus on the Army, personnel policies are not drastically different across the Department of Defense. We should be paying attention too. Take it way, Carl:

They told me that they also wanted to keep soldiers like Andrew but that he was locked into his year group and blah blah institutional bulls*** blah blah nothing they could do about it blah blah blah just the way it is blah blah blah tell him to stick it out and suck it up and blah blah blah.Well, here’s the deal, Big Army.  You’re dooming yourself to decades of mediocrity and increasingly brainless, risk-averse and incompetent commanders because you’re losing your best captains and you have your own poisonous policies to blame for your slow, institutional seppuku.The Army today is a rank-obsessed throwback to Industrial Age practices. Your promotions aren’t competitive and some of your gifted captains are stuck on bloated staffs doing busywork that mocks their intelligence and drive, punishing them with PowerPoint purgatory when they should be out fighting wars your generals apparently aren’t smart enough or creative enough to win.
 Harsh. Although criticisms of our current personnel management system are plentiful, there is not a single defense of it. The closest thing to a defense of the status quo is the statement that the system cannot be changed. Other than that, seemingly every servicemember, defense analyst, DoD civilian employee, and business consultant agrees that the current system is not good enough. And yet, it never changes. There are not even signs that change is in the future. I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly how a modernized, improved personnel management system would look like and operate and there are plenty of suggestions out there. Some things I do know, though. The idea that the system cannot change is, of course, false. Any belief that the US military does not need to improve its policies is also false as there is always room for improvement. The question is: What needs to happen for the system to change? For an answer to that question, I’m going to go waaaaay back and look at two precedents.
In 210 BC, (yes, that far back) the ambitious city of Rome was on the ropes. The Republic had, in living memory, secured their first military success outside of Italy by defeating the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. Now, however, things were bleak. A Carthaginian General named Hannibal had led an invasion of Italy from Spain and left defeated Roman legion after defeated Roman legion after defeated Roman legion in his wake. Hannibal not only won every battle, he made it look easy. One problem that the Romans had was their personnel management system. There were no long-service, professional generals. The legions were led by two annually elected consuls or a dictator, elected in times of stress, who would rotate command every other day. Basically, they let the two most popular rich guys for any particular year command an army. When this system did end up producing a competent commander who understood how to beat Hannibal, a Roman by the name of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrocosus Cunctator (try fitting that name on a nametape), the system replaced him with a man who told Rome what it wanted to hear rather than what it needed to hear. That man, Gaius Terentius Varro, led between somewhere between fifty and seventy thousand Roman soldiers to their deaths at Cannae.
Then the Romans got lucky. They appointed a 25-year old quaestor named Publius Cornelius Scipio to lead the Roman war effort. Long story short, Scipio kicked the Carthaginians out of Spain, then Italy, then took the fight to Carthaginian home territory in North Africa without losing a single battle. This is the first way to fix a poor personnel system: Wait until all the bad leaders get killed until only the good ones are left alive.
The second precedent happened a little bit later in 107 BC when Rome was bogged down in a messy little conflict called the Jugurthine War. Roman leadership had become corrupt and they were stymied by the innovative tactics of the Numidians. Turns out, the legions were poorly organized and equipped to fight a desert war against irregular enemies. (Hmmm.) The continuing conflict prompted one Roman consul, Gaius Marius, to completely overhaul the Roman “force generation” system. It’s not necessary to detail the Marian Reforms here, but suffice it to say that not only did the reforms lead to victory in the Jugurthine War, but the reformed legions would allow Rome to dominate the Western world for centuries afterwards.
This is option number two: a comprehensive, top-down reformation. For a bureaucracy as large, hierarchical, and ossified as the Department of Defense, there is no other way to accomplish meaningful, leap-ahead change.
So is the Marius option feasible? It’s possible, of course. Fortunately our system of government does not concentrate as much power in any one man as the Romans did with Marius. A modern equivalent will most likely need to start with a Joint Chiefs of Staff effort to analyze the current system and make recommendations to the SECDEF and the President. Then, they would need to put their weight behind the reforms to gain Congressional buy-in.
Improbable, yes. But not impossible. The bottom line is that senior leadership, responsible as they are for the manning of the military services, should begin the process of collecting, analyzing, and presenting options to improve the personnel system DoD-wide. It cannot be done piecemeal. It will take a comprehensive, joint effort.
I’m not wholly convinced that the personnel management system is completely broken. But, I am convinced that it can be improved. It is undeniably old and worn. Improving it will pay far more dividends in future wars than any weapon system we could buy. When it comes to how this system can be changed, following Marius’ example is much preferable to playing Carthaginian Roulette. We like to say that the enemy gets a vote. If we allow the status quo to stagnate into a cesspool of legacy practices and good-enough-for-government procedures, the enemy won’t be voting. He will dictate. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Angels Over Afghanistan

Blogger Michael Yon has posted an interesting article on Navy F-18 support of ground troops in Afghanistan.  Most interesting to me is that the naming of aircraft is back.  Does the Corps follow a similar protocol?

Read the entire blog entry here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Single Naval Battle

Co-blogger Richard Hicks recently alerted me to this document: The Report of the recently formed Amphibious Capabilities Working Group entitled Naval Amphibious Capability in the 21st Century: Strategic Opportunity and a Vision for Change. The entire document, in my opinion, is well-researched and well-written and should serve as an appropriate vector for both our return to our amphibious roots and the evolution of those capabilities. The heart of the document is a proposed concept: Single Naval Battle. Despite the Pentagonese title, it is a simple concept.
Single naval battle is an approach to the integration of all elements of sea control and naval power projection into a cohesive whole, removing artificial seams in the application of naval power.
A single naval battle approach views the maritime domain as an indivisible whole, allowing us to express the actions and forces within it as inherently integrated in effect. It provides a unifying perspective for naval operations and bridges the seams between air, land, and sea. It allows the commander to effectively focus the efforts of all elements of the naval force in the greater context of the Joint operation.
In short, a real world operation is not an AirLand Battle, or an AirSea Battle, or an AirSeaLandMaritimeDiplomaticInformationEconomicCulturalSpaceCyberNarnia Battle. It’s just warfare as it has always been, a conflict in which all contributing forces and actions are inherently interactive and must be integrated. This is not a new concept. At least, it shouldn’t be a new concept. Alexander the Great ran roughshod over the ancient Greek city-states because he was the first to effectively match the phalanx with effective cavalry and missile forces and properly integrate them on the battlefield. It’s the same concept that gives the MAGTF its potency. It’s Combined Arms writ large.

Truthfully, this is what AirSea Battle is attempting to hit, but it is only grazing the target so far. ASB attempts to better integrate air and naval forces to overcome A2/AD systems. That’s a good thing, but it does not include every aspect of power projection that needs to be integrated. Focusing solely on only two domains that need better integration ignores other important domains that they must support and interact with.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


In this recent article on AOL Defense, Frank Hoffman discusses hybrid warfare and AirSea Battle. In the course of the article, he seems to say that the major defect in the US military is a lack of communications connectivity or a “network.”
"Warfare's all about asymmetries, trying to find a competitive advantage, hopefully enduring," said Hoffman. For the US, that edge may be the ability to link its own forces together in an all-service network of systems – especially unmanned ones, not just in the air but on the water and the ground – while attacking the enemy's less-sophisticated network with both new cyber-weapons and traditional electronic warfare tools like jamming.
Today, "it's definitely networks and linkages that are missing," said Hoffman, especially between the services and between such traditionally unconnected combat arms as aircraft and submarines. In the future, "we're going to probably have fewer platforms" – ships, planes, tanks – "but they're going to be better networked, better integrated," Hoffman said. "That's where the greatest investment should probably go."
I’m skeptical that the lack of a network, in the physical, communications infrastructure sense is that big of an advantage or disadvantage for the US military. We’ve had communication infrastructure in place for decades, and I personally have never had a technological problem with communicating with other branches. There are other problems though. Time for a story.

In 2008 in Diyala, I was involved in the planning and post-operation AAR of a small scale helo assault operation. The operation involved Army rotary wing assets, Army infantry forces, Iraqi Army infantry forces with Marine advisors, and Air Force rotary assets. The helo assault went smoothly and the objective was reached. Subsequently, seven “squirters” left the objective, a small village, and hunkered down outside it. The Army ground forces were sent to investigate the seven men and were talked on to their position by an Air Force helo pilot who had eyes on their position. The soldiers approached the seven men in a column formation. When the Army squad reached the seven men, they pulled small arms from underneath their bodies and ambushed them, causing two KIA and pinning down the squad. The Army squad alerted the Iraqi forces through the Marine advisors, and the IA forces maneuvered on the rear of the enemy ambush, killing some and causing the rest to flee. Subsequent viewing of the aerial footage revealed that the seven enemy were arrayed along a road in a classic linear ambush formation. Any of the ground forces involved, if they had seen the footage, would have instantly recognized it as such. The Air Force pilot, unfortunately, did not and walked the infantry squad right into the kill zone of the ambush.