July 28, 2003

Unit manning will benefit the many

Donald A. Vandergriff

The writer is an Army major, an armor officer and the author of Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs. He can be reached at   Republished with permission of the author.

I recommend that the nominees for Army secretary and Army chief of staff pull out the 1970 U.S. Army War College “Study of Professionalism” [9.3 MB PDF] by then-Lt. Cols. Walt Ulmer and Mike Malone — and read it. The findings show what happens when a culture forces its leaders to pick their careers over their soldiers.

Why has the Army formed a Unit Manning Task Force, composed of some very bright people, to come up with ways to revolve personnel policies around a unit manning system?

Before unit manning, the personnel system also made attempts to haphazardly rotate units to and from Afghanistan. Our culture allowed the personnel system to throw them together, and then tear them apart upon their return.

With Operation Iraqi Freedom, we waived many policies that allowed the 3rd Infantry Division to cross the line of departure March 21 with solid teams of soldiers, led by leaders at all levels who had worked and bonded into a “band of brothers” through tough training in harsh conditions.

This formula was a central part of the 3rd ID’s success.

I knew this could not last long. The personnel managers took the reins back. War is a distraction from the more important job of managing careers.

But we now are at war and will remain at war for quite a long time. It is time for a revolution in our Industrial Age personnel system that focuses on the individual at the cost of the unit.

Put yourself in the shoes of a soldier who has trained stateside, done a National Training Center rotation with that group of soldiers called his unit. He is then deployed again months before combat. More bonding takes place. Trust is built at all levels. A cohesive unit is formed.

Then, some career manager using a career template, based on theories developed a century ago, says it’s time to move this soldier’s commander. “Others are waiting in line behind. We have to be fair,” they say. “Other jobs must be filled stateside. We must be fair.”

Is it fair to the unit in combat, its soldiers, to watch the commander leave while they remain? After the change-of-command formation, the soldiers return to patrolling, manning checkpoints and providing convoy security. Officers come and go — this sounds like another war, a threat to cohesion and morale. Unit effectiveness is degraded as the unit adapts to the ways of the new commander.

Imagine now that you’re the new guy just arriving at Baghdad International Airport. First you were shipped or flown with many others to Kuwait. You notice how hot it is as you’re hustled off individually to a unit operating somewhere in Iraq.

You join a unit that has already been there for a while. You’re the “newbie,” that no one trusts, the one who gets the extra duty that the “vets” don’t want. You are left to learn the ropes of a hostile, strange environment. If something bad is going to happen, it is going to happen to the new guy. The “vets” keep their distance out of self-protection. It is a lonely place.

So to Army Secretary nominee James Roche and Army Chief of Staff nominee Gen. Peter Schoomaker, I say transforming the personnel system should be one of your top priorities upon taking your oaths of office.

The Army personnel system, characterized by the individual replacement system and the Officer/NCO career management system, is the primary cause of these problems. American units and service members have long suffered from the excessive personnel turbulence and careerism caused by the personnel system. The system itself was last codified at the end of World War II. It is a fundamental repudiation of the efforts to take care of and honor the individual service member.

Several Army chiefs have tried to change the system but failed. Opposition to change has historically been centered in the personnel bureaucracy.

Personnel turbulence prevents training continuity, thereby causing low readiness, low proficiency standards and high operations tempo as units strive to overcome organizational defects through long hours of training and frequent training deployments.

Careerism leads to micro-management and distrust. It destroys cohesion and turns brothers-in-arms into competitors. The Army can create units that are more ready, and service members who are more satisfied, by changing the personnel system. Use a unit, not an individual, replacement system, and allow officers and NCOs to manage their own careers. A unit rotation system would allow units to keep people together for three or more years and would allow units to develop true competence, as Delta Force soldiers and Navy SEALs have done.

A new personnel system is essential to obtaining the benefits of Army Transformation. A study by the Army Science Board found Transformation plans must include a restructuring of this system because the status quo prevents current and future combat units from effectively executing their increasingly complex missions.

Dust off the “Study of Professionalism,” please, and learn from it so you can adapt and change the old ways before it is too late.

Originally published in the Army Times, July 28, 2003