Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Revamping the DOD

Well, I know it has been discussed elsewhere, but one of the gang mentioned this NY Times OpEd, and I have no reluctance to discuss some of the flawed thinking in it.

I don't know a lot about Mr Kane, and simply stating that he is "a Marine veteran of Iraq " says not much more than "Eddie Slovik was an Army Veteran of WWII".

I won't address his "disband the Air Force" or "Universal National Service" ideas just yet, but save them for two separate threads to keep the dialogue focused.

But, I will address his thoughts on "Up or Out" and manpower planning.

There are some drawbacks to "Up or Out". Yes, the services lose some good people. The difficulty is that the services only need "X" number of captains, for example. If Captain vacancies are limited by allowing the least competitive to remain as long as they wish, then good Lieutenants cannot advance, and the lesser qualified Captains perform the jobs that more promising Lieutenants might be promoted to and fill. There have been "Selective Retention in Grade" programs to allow twice passed over officers to remain in uniform as a manpower management tool, and this exception to "Up or Out" is a fine idea. Note the use of the term "Selective". Sometimes trying to maximize manpower quality can be tough. I am reminded of what the Colonel from the Marine Officer Selection Office said to us when visiting our college campus, "We select our officer candidates with one thing in mind. Not every Lieutenant will become Commandant, but every Commandant was once a Lieutenant. Thus, to the best of our ability, our material for Lieutenant should be material for the top as well." Potential for advancement helps provide a good pool of candidates for higher level billets.

Unlike private sector employment, the military can not seek a pool of permanent, career first-line workers. There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is that aged riflemen are not as capable of the rigors of the trade as young bucks. Also, unlike the private sector, the military cannot tap other employers for people to laterally transfer into the NCO and Officer ranks. They have to grow their own. Part of that "growing" is winnowing, unfortunately. The age old addage of "Mission first, then the welfare of the troops" is the only way the military can succeed.

The military is, by public policy, an organization of designed capability, and thus of a defined size. It must maintain it's warfighting capability within this defined size. Further, it is totally depended upon UNITS to accomplish its mission. It is not a collection of individual players. Thus, it tries to use manpower management tools to staff the ranks for current and future needs, yet cannot "overhire" as a tool for the future. Civilian employment has similar tools. When a company has too many employees in a given category, they conduct layoffs. Very often those selected for furlough are not the least able, but the least senior. Were it not for age discrimination laws, many would be the older, higher paid, to save even more money, and in fact this is often accomplished by incentives to retire.

There is a limited place in the military for "Selective Retention in Grade" or technical specialists (WO Aviators, for example) that can be less subject to "UP or Out". But it is not a "One Size Fits All" solution.

Assailing "Up or Out" has great emotional appeal, as well as the financial accounting suggestion Kane makes. And, they might just be fine for organizations that do not have to be near 100% capable of accomplishing a defined LIFE OR DEATH mission at all times. I am just not convinced that the manpower and operating tools of American private sector business are 100% appropriate for the defense of our country. They were clearly not so for the defense of our economy!



Andy said...

"Up or out" is effectively dead at the moment. It practically takes a felony to not make LTC in the Army and in the Air Force, it's not much better. Promotion to Major was over 90% last year and LTC is in the high eighties. Considering that high-year tenure is basically gone and anyone can stick around until 20 once they reach Major, there simply isn't "up or out" anymore.

Enlisted isn't much different, though it's quite a bit harder to make the E-7. Ironically, in the Air Force, E-6 is harder to get than E-7.

Maybe it will come back at some point in the future, but not for the time being.

Aviator47 said...


But it does have great "emotional appeal" in any argument assailing military practices. To those who have never served, which is the vast majority, even a prohibition against an obvious stagnation would seem cruel or ill advised.

There were times I would marvel at the reasonably good job the Army did at recruiting, training and assigning people, who were then trained collectively, to accomplish a huge diversity of tasks in harmony, to meet the mission.


almost drafted said...

I'm glad to see Al's pledge to put the 'disband the USAF' and 'national service' issues up for discussion at some point.

I'm also glad to see veterans poking holes in this article because I now see that it is a perfect example of what I call the "newspaper effect."

That's when you read a newspaper, and it all sounds swell until you come across an article on a subject about which you know something. The effect is that you clap yourself in the forehead and say, "The author if this crap didn't have a freaking clue."

But I also remember I-D contributors arguing about the metrics used to determine suitability for retention and promotion. Isn't that the core of this issue?

And as Andy points out (as others have for their respective service arms), up-and-out is dead, or at least moribund, as indicated by promotion rates. Isn't a 90% promotion rate an issue as well?

In my own experience as a USAF enlistee in the early 70s, Airman Performance Reports meant essentially nothing. Anyone who was still warm got 9s across the board. I worked for a GS-13 at NSA, who gave me what I thought was an accurate and fair APR, but it contained a couple of 8s. I didn't have the heart to tell him that he was screwing me, and in fact that APR cost me promotion to E5.

To put it another way, do we really want to pass over an outstanding candidate for a haircut or shoeshine violation?



Publius said...

So long as you have the pyramid, you're going to need an up or out system of one kind or another. From what I've heard, Andy is correct in observing that up or out is functionally dead right now. But it won't always be that way, so I'd like to see a really hard look at how such a system is applied.

I don't think up or out is especially damaging in the case of the combat arms or in some CS and CSS areas. And in the case of most commissioned Army officers, probably not either. But I see some seriously harmful effects if an up or out system is applied rigidly in the case of warrant officers, NCOs and even some more junior enlisted personnel in some specialties. I'm thinking here of what I know were seriously deleterious effects due to the rigid application of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the case of many enlisted folks with linguistic skills in some seriously difficult languages. Not the same thing as up or out, I know, but illustrative of the pitfalls in rigid application of the "rules."

Say you're a combat commander, one of those who, whether he likes it or not, is becoming increasingly dependent on esoteric electronic systems. Who would you rather have working on those systems that may save your unit's ass on the battlefield, the lean, mean, fighting machine who barely knows a bit from a byte or the fat geek who gets off on screwing around with computers for 12 hours on end? I know who I want, but that guy might be non selected for promotion because he doesn't look good in a uniform.

C4I is an area where I'd like to see a little "give." Aviation is another one. Some of those WOs are wizard pilots, even if their military bearing isn't quite what the Army would like. Well, if I'm in a hot LZ, I'm not asking the pilot how much he weighs or whether he went to the right schools.

Most of my contemporaries who stuck around and are now—as DoD or other agency civilians—getting ready to finally leave government service, pretty much agree that our branch, Military Intelligence, has faltered in recent years, notably those dealing with more unorthodox operations. These are the folks who should be out there doing interesting things in interesting areas, war zones or wherever. Over the years, I knew some truly idiosyncratic guys wearing (usually not) the U.S. Army uniform. We were all pretty tight, probably because nobody else wanted much to do with us. Most were WOs, some were senior NCOs, and a lot were commissioned types. Absent some legal and regulatory protections, I suspect many of us wouldn't have made it to retirement.

Most folks who do the more esoteric things in a military that's increasingly reliant on sheer brainpower and weird high-tech stuff, don't have the protections I once had. I don't like thinking that some "best and brightest" strange dudes who don't quite fit the mold might get arbitrarily tossed out because they didn't punch a certain ticket or because they didn't meet the ideal soldier criteria.

This, BTW, is especially applicable in today's Army. Lots of people are concerned with the future impacts on some truly fine officers who may have made a career mistake by working on the front lines doing advisory duty in Afghanistan rather than getting all of the tickets punched. It would be a true crime if, because they never worked as, e.g., S3s, some good officers turned out to be in that 10-15% cohort that gets passed over for 05.

The real problem with up or out is that arbitrary and often inflexible criteria are applied when the promotion and retention decisions are being made. Little allowance is made for the officer who's doing a great job for the nation, but by so doing, does not fit the cookie cutter.

Pluto said...

So I clicked onto the webpage and read the headline of the article and for some reason saw "Vamping the DOD."

I was really interested in the article until I took a second look and got the title right.

Andy said...

The real problem with up or out is that arbitrary and often inflexible criteria are applied when the promotion and retention decisions are being made. Little allowance is made for the officer who's doing a great job for the nation, but by so doing, does not fit the cookie cutter.Bingo. Unfortunately, in many ways I think we have the worst-of-all-worlds right now: High retention rates and the cookie-cutter approach. The arbitrary and often stupid metrics for promotability have not gone away - they just don't mean quite as much anymore. As a result, there isn't much incentive to change them, so they endure. If there's another drawdown like the 1990's, then they'll return with a vengeance.


Evaluations are still the same in a lot of ways - everyone is rated consistently at the top. What this does is force promotion boards and raters too look at other areas - primarily the narrative blocks. Filling these blocks is an art form and the quality of one's evaluation is often directly attributable to the writing and word-smithing skills of one's supervisor. Sad, but true.

Aviator47 said...

If we are hoping for a "perfect" or near perfect system, we shouldn't hold our breath. Such exists nowhere. However, as Publius points out, certain fields of endeavor in the military would not be not hampered by "career technocrats", and thus a "one size fits all" personnel management system is not the best.

The Army tried a broad brush technical specialist enlisted approach when it had non-leadership "Specialist" grades up to and including E-7. It was a mess, as it was, for all intents and purposes, trying to introduce a hierarchical pay grade system without a clear hierarchical responsibility/authority system attached. Since a Specialist 6 could not stand the same NCO watch duty as an equivalent pay grade Staff Sgt, was he to stand that of a PFC or or just any additional non-supervisory duty that a SSG might stand, which as often nothing.

"Up or Out" is not a horrible approach, nor is it the optimal one. It's application, however, could benefit with some supplemental tools, and all must be used with as much precision as possible. However, whatever is used, the mission must be the prime driver, not "employee benefits".

FDChief said...

I have little hope or expectation that DoD - or at least DA - will change their promotion or retention policies anytime soon. The personell system has proved remarkably resistant to reform throughout the post-Vietnam/VOLAR period.

To take just one example, when I got in in the late 70's/early 80's we had just reworked the Enlisted Evaluation Report from the old EER, mostly because the old system had become so ineffective. Anything but a max EER was a career killer, so starting with your initial evaluation as an E-5 you received the max across the board unless you were an utter dirtbag.

This was clearly a problem. So the EER was "revised", the format changed and the critera for comments explictly stated. No longer were bullet comments like "Fully supports the commander's intent" acceptable; everything had to be quantifiable. You couldn't praise an NCO for qualitative qualities, only for quantitative ones. PT test and qualitification scores, awards, LOCs, etc. The joke was that you couldn't write something like "SSG Blank's tactical penis is larger and harder than yours or mine" but you could write "SSG Blank lifted a 12.5 kilo weight on his erection and carried it 2,000 meters to the mess hall on 13 May, 1983".

Of course, what happened is that the above average and exceptional NCOs had EERs that looked great, average NCOs looked average and below average NCOs looked really poor.

Theoretically, you'd think that this would mean that the EER would again become a useful tool for promotion.

But, knowing human nature, what do you think happened?

Of course. Many NCOs didn't have the skill (or the ruhtlessness) to discriminate against the incompetent subordinates). The process of obscuring the EER proceeded quickly. Meaningless bullet comments returned, automatic "walks on water" EERs were the norm. The notion of a "360 EER" (that is, with observations not just from superiors but peers and subordinates) was floated briefly but never even tried.

Oh, well. We then decided to fight two land wars in central Asia and the entire notion of worrying about quality over quantity became moot. And, sadly, we STILL didn't have enough quantity to (as the Soviets used to say) develop it as a quality of its own.


One a lighter note, my experience with the specialist ranks was less unpleasant than Al's. I LOVED being a SP5 ("getting an umbrella for your bird" was how we expressed the process of advancement from SP4 to SP5). With an umbrella for my bird I could pull CQ and other E-5 duties, but when the 1SG would come rampaging looking for a hard-charging sergeant for a detail I could smirk and direct him to the hard-charging buck sergeants. No "sergeants" in this here med platoon, Top!

Aviator47 said...


Never found my experience with Specialists of the "Super Grades" unpleasant. It was just an awkward situation, as you point out, and really not too functional.

I have to say that my view of the Specialist grades was skewed when I heard a commander talk about giving a very deserving soldier a "raise", rather than a "promotion". I inquired as to the meaning of this, as no such concept existed in the Marine Corps, in which I had served prior to transferring to the Army to fly. His response was that he was going to advance the soldier from PFC to Specialist 4, which was, for all intents and purposes more of a raise than a promotion, as it would not elevate him to NCO. And, in some ways, he was correct, at least as far as Specialists were perceived.

As to the evaluation system, I have yet to see a flawless one. In civilian circles, performance appraisals are often written in a manner to simply justify a raise of lack thereof. The payroll action is decided, and then the paperwork is written in a manner that is consistent with the payroll action. And, in some organizations, were dollars for raises are tightly budgeted, and raises are tied by formula with performance appraisals, very often raters will be forced to rate everyone around "average", since to support the dollars for an "outstanding" for one employee, one or more employees must be rated "below average" to keep within budget.

I agree with Publius that there are certain specialties that do not need muscular, hard charging soldiers, and can exist outside the typical pyramid. But, however, if soldiers in these specialties will also be assigned at times to line units, care much be taken to have people available who won't be total outsiders when in these billets. People are most effective when they can integrate.


Publius said...

Al: ...."if soldiers in these specialties will also be assigned at times to line units, care much be taken to have people available who won't be total outsiders when in these billets. People are most user level? Well, I'll tell you. The personnel system, and in fact the entire "system," as embodied by the majority of senior NCOs and officers, treats these valuable resources like pieces of meat.

It's like these kids, some of the best in America, should be GRATEFUL to be in the Army. Well, there may have been times, e.g., in the pre-WW2 Army, and during the lull between Korea and Vietnam, where the Army actually had a lot of soldiers who were, shall we say, problematic, soldiers who actually might be expected to be grateful to the Army for giving them the proverbial "three hots and a cot."

Times have changed, but the "system" has not. The system makes little accommodation for people with rare talents; it treats all persons alike, regardless of a given individual's capacity for growth and potential future contribution. It's very depressing to watch a bright young buck sergeant with future sergeant major or officer written all over him ride off into the sunset because his first sergeant or company commander thinks junior enlisted people are lower forms of life.

It's equally depressing to watch cunning brown nosers with mediocre skills rise to the top.

My experience over the years, especially with the enlisted ranks, is that many of the very best left, not because they didn't like their jobs (military jobs can be very challenging), but because they grew tired of working for assholes whom the "system" had empowered and also wondered why that "system" insisted on employing them in work seemingly designed to retard rather than accelerate skills development. "Up or out" was always a manifestation of the "system"; too many real achievers have always balked at doing many of the things the "system" says they have to do to be promoted.

Based on my own experiences, and on what I see on web sites frequented by talented military professionals, the personnel system is the greatest irritant of all, the one that virtually every thinking military person would blow up and start all over again. The question is why has this system remained essentially unchanged since the days of Elihu Root?

FDChief said...

OK, now I have to tell my "Who the fuck promoted HIM?!?" story.

I was working at Bragg as an E-4 medic when my section sergeant and generally beloved alcoholic SP5 Monte Harder called me in to help a new NCO move into the barracks. The first thing I noticed was that the guy was an SSG - I can't think of too many other E-6s who still lived in the billets; most were either married or managed to bag a place off-post to avoid the usual duties and details that came with living within arms reach of the 1SG.

The next thing was that he came in with a full length portrait of himself. In dress greens. Painted on black velvet.


The very next morning my buddy Alfie Castello and I were GIing the latrine when suddenly here's this cherry SSG standing in the doorway. He points in the general vicinity of the sinks and says:

"Ya gabba wabba nah kamooko no wahahah!"

Alfie looks at me and I look at him. Then we both look at the sergeant.

"Ummm...sure thing, sergeant!" I reply brightly. He nods, grunts, and walks off towars his room.

"What the fuck did he say?" I hiss to Alfie, who looks bugeyed at me and replies "Christ, I don't know! You answered him - I thought you knew!"

At that point we knew we had a problem.

Fortunately it was a short-lived one. The new NCO went in to meet our 1SG and gave him a dose of his "gabba-wabba" talk and Top Thorpe, never a particularly patient man, roared "What the HELL you speaking, sergeant, goddam SWAHILI!?!" More gabba-gabba, and Top bellowed "Curtosi! (his clerk) Get this non-English-speaking retard outta my office! What the HELL is Repo thinkin'?!?" He was gone that afternoon.

So perhaps it's not surprising that the Army's promotion and retention policies have always been a mystery to me.

seydlitz89 said...

"a full length portrait of himself. In dress greens. Painted on black velvet."

Jeeezz, why didn't I think of that? Myself in Winter Service Alpha with OMCR ribbon . . . another lost opportunity from my past!