Leadership (V) - Unit Cohesion and Why Personnel Rotation Policies
Hurt the Army's Readiness for Combat

November 5, 1998

Comment: #210 

Discussion Thread:  #s 206, 207, 208, and 209


[1] Email from an unknown reader, forwarded to me by a newspaper reporter who has asked him about Lt ZZZ's comments on ""Officer Professionalism and Cohort," Email from Lt Col ZZZ, An Active Duty Army Officer, November 3, 1998. [Reference 1 to Comment #207]

[2] Lt Col ZZZ's Response.

"Machines don't fight wars, people do and they use their MINDS!!!"

The late American strategist Col. John R. Boyd (USAF Ret) [bio in Comment #199] used to pound these words into the heads of anyone who would listen. His point was that people and ideas are far more important than hardware and technology when it comes to fighting and winning wars.

Boyd would be the first to say that Major XXX's comparison of Dr. Faris Kirkland's essay on the Army's leadership tradition to General Moores rather superficial call for a revival of the warrior spirit [Comment #206] and Lt Col ZZZ's essay on officer professionalism and the Army's unit cohesion experiment known as COHORT [Comment #107] is a discussion that goes to the heart of what makes an effective military.

One reader of this list, a newspaper reporter specializing in defense issues, forwarded Lt Col ZZZ's essay to one of his sources for comment. That source responded somewhat skeptically to Lt Col ZZZ with the comments in Attachment 1. Attachment 2 is Lt Col ZZZ's reaction.

Attachment 2 is one the clearest expositions of leadership, unit cohesion, and why the Army's personnel management culture weakens both that I have yet read. I urge all readers to read both references carefully.

Finally, I want to apologize for the anonymity in these exchanges, but unfortunately, the post-cold war Defense Department is an authoritarian culture that penalizes professionals when they engage in thoughtful arguments that question whether established doctrines and management practices are suited to the changing conditions of the external world.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1 

A Readers Reaction to Lt Col ZZZ's

Interesting piece [by Lt Col ZZZ, but hard to put in context. Couple of things:

1. I haven't seen any systematic study of the COHORT system on a service-wide basis, so I have only my experience, reading, etc., to go on. But I think that for many, the experience of COHORT units was more like the "treat them as animals" experience the prior commander had. See Geroge Wilson's Mud Soldiers for a look at a COHORT unit.

2. An Army that's simply got too few NCOs and junior officers -- and there are severe shortages -- may be compounding its troubles by going to a COHORT-like system that emphasizes unit cohesion as measured by time together. Every time the Army is forced into even modest stabilization policies -- like when units are sent to Bosnia -- hiccups appear all over the Army. At the very least, COHORT-style policies are not enough. I am very interested to see whether the Marines can sustain their "Cohesion Marines" policy, especially given their high attrition rates. Will it be enough to convince the Riddick Bowe's of the world to remain in the Corps?

Reference #2

Lt Col ZZZ's Response

Lt Col ZZZ's reply to the reader's reaction [re: Attachment 1 above]

COHORT CAN work IF personnel management policies support it. But, if COHORT exists in only one place, such as the 7th ID(L) or a unit preparing to go to Bosnia, hiccups are bound to appear elsewhere throughout the Army. Current personnel policies (individual replacements) and COHORT are antagonistic. They can't co-exist very well, if at all. The problem is not TOO FEW officers and NCOs but TOO MANY officers that have to get their platoon or command time before moving on to the next job. For COHORT to truly work and create cohesive, highly effective units, officers have to be stabilized within those units. We would have to fill units with officers, NCOs and soldiers then keep them together for an entire life cycle (3 yrs). That would mean that some officers won't "get their chance." We would have professional staff officers who would never get into a platoon leader or command billet unless they eventually prove themselves worthy. That would require battalion and brigade commanders to make the hard call about who is going to get the platoon leader or command position and who is not. Under the present system, everyone gets their turn! What is best for the unit is not best for the individual.

COHORT works and creates extremely effective units IF it has good officer and NCO leadership that understands the unique challenges and stresses of this type of unit. See Dr. Kirkland's Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) Tech. Report No. 5, Unit Manning System Field Evaluation, dated 17 JUN 1987. The report cites "the deleterious effects on cohesion of rotating key company level leaders." The current officer personnel management system requires that company-level commanders change every 15-18 months in order to give every captain his turn. I was a battalion S3 in the 82d Abn DivArty and saw battery commanders change frequently. I even had to change out after 12 months although I was getting good at my job. If the unit is lucky, it gets a good commander for the next 18 mos. If not, they have to wait 18 mos. until they can get rid of the guy. The NCOs (esp. in the 82d) tend to stay in the same unit for several years. That's stability. The soldiers stay, as well. Officers are the wild card. That does nothing to enhance unit stability and cohesion (or combat effectiveness).

The first light infantry division "entailed sigificant changes from traditional practices in the U.S. Army." Rather than relying on logistical superiority and overwhelming an enemy through attrition, the light infantry division had to be able to deploy to an austere contingency area and win through "soldier power," the military proficiency of small groups of lightly armed soldiers. The limitations on airlift wouldn't support a massive buildup of logistics or combat power. This concept is not new; the airborne fought through Normandy during WWII like this. The report defines "soldier power" as the "synergistic product of intensive, progressive training rigorously focused on the combat mission, experienced leadership, and horizontal and vertical cohesion." It goes on to say that, "the COHORT system makes possible the development of interpersonal cohesion essential to small forces operating independently in hostile environments." Staying together as a unit for three years makes this possible.

The CSA published a White Paper on Leadership in 1985 (following the White Paper on Light Infantry Divisions in 1984) that proposed relationships between leaders and subordinates based on mutual trust, respect, affection, and dedication to a common purpose. The principles call for open, complete, and truthful communication both up and down the chain of command. The CSA recommends that leaders empower their subordinates by granting them discretion commensurate with their competence, involving them in decision-making, and relying on their ability to function autonomously within the boundaries of their missions." I have experienced this type of environment only once in my career: while assigned to the 7th ID(L). I tried to bring it to the 82d Abn Div when I was assigned there as an S3 with partial success.

The closest we came to institutionalizing a unit manning concept was General Myer's recommendation that we adopt a regimental system similar to the British system. What we have now is only a shadow of what he really intended. His concept was that officers and NCOs would remain with the same regiment for their entire careers and would not be forced to move up or out. Rather, they could remain at their current grade so long as they remained competent. The idea emphasized stability and cohesion, something we currently lack.

The current officer personnel management system emphasizes the officer's career development through narrowly defined "wickets" rather than unit cohesion or effectiveness. Unfortunately, these personnel policies undermine combat readiness. Kirkland's 1987 Tech Report states, "the most destructive behavior occurred when an officer was viewed as trying to further personal ambitions at the expense of the soldiers ... Rapid turnover of lieutenants as platoon leaders made both officers and their troops feel that the lieutenant was not part of the platoon, but a transient." This unit replacement policy is reminiscent of personnel policies in place during the Vietnam War in which many officers were viewed in the same manner by their troops. Kirkland writes, "the perception most damaging to vertical cohesion was that officers' careers mattered more to them than did the welfare of the unit." Haven't we learned something since our experience in Vietnam? We're still managing personnel piecemeal, rather than as units!

Kirkland's Tech Report didn't just focus on what went wrong in the COHORT system but found many examples of units that "got it right." He and his coauthors give many suggestions about what ingredients were common to high-performance units. These ingredients included technical and tactical knowledge, respect for subordinates, trust in subordinates, a power-down style of leadership, caring and a focus on the mission (setting clear priorities and shielding soldiers from higher HQ requirements that weren't mission-essential). "Constructive commanders used their staffs to fight higher headquarters to get personnel and equipment, shortstop requirements, and alleviate their subordinates' anxieties."

Kirkland makes an indictment of the prevailing Army culture. "It was clear from the experiences of these light infantrymen and artillerymen that the current Army culture does not support vertical cohesion or the capability to operate autonomously. Rather, the Army culture teaches leaders that the appropriate reaction to pressure is to centralize control, put on a good show, and sweat the troops (remember the quote "treat them like animals?"). This is not because leaders are weak or evil; it is because they have been raised in an Army culture in which the prime assumptions are that no one will do his best unless he is pressured and closely checked, that being good is meaningless unless you look good, and if you look good no one will check further, and that I won't be here when the facade I have created crumbles." The implications of this statement, if true, are enormous for readiness and deployability issues.

The writer states that he has not read any systematic study of the COHORT system on a service-wide basis. I encourage him to read the WRAIR studies on the light infantry division and the COHORT system. They conducted extensive observational research and conducted numerous interviews over a multi-year period to come to the conclusions I referred to above. He might also read the two CSA White Papers referenced in this essay.

These issues are critical to our Army. With battalion command being the Holy Grail of career success, most officers are risk-averse and want to avoid doing anything that would jeopardize their next rating. This type of climate does nothing to encourage risk-taking, empowering subordinates or building the most combat-effective units. The fruits of a power-down leadership style take too long to realize for most. They are not immediate and when a single OER can make the difference whether you will make the battalion command list or not, most officers simply won't risk it. Our Army culture punishes risk-takers. It doesn't allow mistakes. (If you can't make mistakes, how can you learn?) It actually works against creating the most combat-effective units! Doesn't this tell you that something is wrong?

Another writer responded to my piece yesterday by stating that the resiliency of the enlisted soldiers of our Army keeps it strong. He's right. But I think it is a shame that they have to be resilient to negative internal pressures that we could eliminate by overhauling our officer personnel management policies. [Lt Col ZZZ is referring to the comments by the Master Sergeant at Ft Sill, #209]

I hope the Army's bold experiment of the 1980s, the light infantry division and the COHORT unit manning system, are not left on the dust pile of history. I fear we are returning to a system that was in place during Vietnam and failed us then.