Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the author as having retired from the military. He has been discharged from the Army, but he didn’t serve long enough to qualify as retired. The version below has been corrected.
Adrian Bonenberger, an infantry officer with the U.S. Army from 2005 to 2012, is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of “Afghan Post.”
As Army leadership ponders who and what to cut from its budget, the first groups in the crosshairs are the junior and mid-level officers. This is a logical step: To wage counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army expanded its fighting force, and now it’s time to draw down. What isn’t logical is that other ranks will largely get a free pass.
The Army, and the military overall, would be better served by retiring some of the generals, colonels and senior lieutenant colonels, and promoting the best captains, majors and junior lieutenant colonels into those roles.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Army stood at 480,000 soldiers. Over the next decade, it ballooned to 565,000 soldiers in 2011 and has since shrunk back to 528,000. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last summer that the Army needed to reduce its numbers to as few as 380,000, the lowest since before World War II. It seems likely that the Pentagon will adopt this number as its target for 2020. These cuts will overwhelmingly fall where the recent growth occurred: younger soldiers and officers, nearly all of whom joined to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.
On the officer side, this means dismissing captains and majors — the ranks where people entered the force to fight terrorism. No plans have been announced to scale back the numbers of higher-ranking officers such as senior lieutenant colonels and colonels. (The number of generals is assigned by Congress and is constant at 230 in the Army.) Having more experienced, higher-ranking soldiers and officers means that the force will remain strategically flexible and able to expand rapidly if the need arises — even as it loses junior officers.
But cutting personnel who have the most direct experience with contemporary wars — the senior captains, most majors and the junior lieutenant colonels — erodes U.S. military capabilities in precisely the place they’re needed most.
Most of the colonels and generals leading the Army were trained to fight World War III against the Soviets; most of the captains and majors have trained and fought against al-Qaeda, Sunni militias and the Taliban. Unfortunately, few colonels and generals have, in practical terms, been able to adapt their 1980s and ’90s training to the needs of today’s warfare.
The best evidence for this is that we didn’t win in Iraq and haven’t won in Afghanistan. Military journalist Thomas E. Ricks has argued that America’s generals and colonels have been largely responsible for these failures. Small, transient battlefield successes — the Sunni Awakening in Iraq and partnering with militias in Afghanistan to defeat Taliban groups — were largely products of enterprising junior officers: perceptive lieutenants, captains and occasionally majors. In the past three years, those officers have been promoted to captains, majors and lieutenant colonels — and now they’re the ones on the chopping block.
Another reason to consider promoting mid-level officers into substantial leadership roles is the military’s fast-changing culture. The younger captains, majors and lieutenant colonels did not, for the most part, grow up in a country or a military where being gay was automatically seen as disgraceful; they are also more readily able than prior generations to imagine women in combat. Empowering officers who can help solidify such changes will boost morale and enhance the Army’s fighting capability, especially at a time of austerity and decreased training opportunities. These officers have in many cases served alongside women in combat (or are women themselves). They’re better able to see them as warfighting equals than as irksome obligations or legal liabilities — making these officers ideally suited to help the military transition away from its current culture, in which serial rapists are slapped on the wrist or tacitly endorsed.
I am not suggesting that every colonel or general deserves to be fired to make way for a new generation. I do, however, think that trimming a similar number of colonels and generals — say, 10 percent of captains and majors — would create room for the change the Army badly needs. The number of generals remains constant at 230, and I don’t believe we need fewer colonels — just different ones — so this won’t reduce the actual number of senior leaders in the military. It will, however, open up senior leadership to younger officers. To do this correctly, Congress would have to select which senior officers to retire, at which point the military would select which officers to promote. It could be as straightforward as putting every senior lieutenant colonel, colonel and general under the microscope and getting rid of the least capable.
Some of the greatest leaders I’ve met were general officers, and I was honored to serve with them. But we already evaluate tens of thousands of individuals for secret clearances every year, and as the military reviews the careers of thousands of captains and majors to determine who to dismiss and who to retain, it would make sense to review the senior leadership, too. If the future of warfare is going to be small-scale, counterinsurgency conflicts, the likes of which we’re now fighting in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania, we should empower the officers who understand at the ground level how to fight.
There’s another consideration that the military needs to face, and this moment of force adjustment would be the perfect time to do it: Senior officers are becoming obsolete faster than ever. The complexity and pace of technological change over the past 15 years have been unprecedented. In a 2011 Army study surveying all ranks about the Army’s program to teach digital literacy, none of the respondents said the program was “on track”; two-thirds said it had problems; and a third characterized it as “substantially behind.” For most captains and majors who were born in the late 1970s and early 1980s and grew up on computers, digital literacy doesn’t need to be taught or mandated — it’s part of life.
At the current pace of promotion, it will take at least a decade for the Army’s officer corps to catch up to today’s technology. Colonels and generals don’t seem to have enough time to learn their current jobs, let alone time to train themselves in the technology that holds promise for the future of warfare. It would be much simpler and more feasible to find and promote those junior and mid-level officers best suited for tomorrow’s wars.
At a time when billion-dollar start-ups are developed and sold by 20-somethings, it’s not such a stretch to imagine that suitable service members in their 30s — three or four among 1,000 — could accept a level of responsibility far beyond the military’s usual promotion progression. After all, Amazon’s chief executive is 50 years old, Microsoft’s is 46, Google’s is 40 and Facebook’s is 29.
Technology isn’t the exclusive province of the young, and nobody would argue to replace the highest-ranking Army general — Chief of Staff Ray Odierno — with a company commander. Out of 95 brigadier generals, however, it seems likely that there’s a major or a junior lieutenant colonel who would be much better equipped than at least one of them to lead the military into the 21st century. The swift promotion, against heavy institutional resistance, of H.R. McMaster , now 51, from colonel to lieutenant general shows that the Pentagon understands that the higher ranks require a certain amount of young, new vision. However, McMaster isn’t going to change a culture all by himself.
There’s as great a need for responsible, mature military leadership as there is for flexibility and change. The bulk of the military’s top decision-makers should be those three- and four-stars who saw us defeat Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, who trained for battle against Russia or China. That still leaves a lot of room at the top for more flexible, youthful leadership, which could easily be filled by the most qualified junior officers.
While budgets are being cut and wars drawn down, it is tempting to simply realign according to old habits. It’d be better, though, to use this moment of fiscal austerity to overhaul the military at all levels, rather than cutting just the layers that appear bloated. If the Army is serious about building a modern, high-tech force, it’ll consider these changes — and the rest of the military will follow.
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