The Military's Personnel Death Spiral

June 26, 2000

Comment: #366

Discussion Thread:  #s 365

The email below elaborates on Points 1 and 2 made by Capt. Damon in Comment #365. The author is an active duty Marine Lt Col with lots of troop leadership time and combat tours in Somalia and the Persian Gulf War. He expands Damon's discussion into a general description of the forces powering a "Personnel Death Spiral" that is affecting all the services..

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From: LTC XXX, USMC Subject: RE: #365: Why the Army's Emerging Personnel Policies Will Not Stem the Exodus of Captains Date: Mon, 26 Jun 2000


Points 1 and 2 are evidence of the "personnel death spiral" that all the services seem to be experiencing. We are a closed system with entry only at the 2dLt level. This contributes to the personnel/morale problems the officer corps is facing. Here's how the spiral works:

  • You are short majors and captains so you crank up the promotion machine and manufacture more.

  • Additional promotions add to the numbers for those grades, but never meet your total requirement. Plus, the 4 year captain you have looks and sounds an awful lot like the 1stLt he would have been a year ago before accelerated promotions!

  • Overall you still need more officers to meet your end strength so you increase accessions by increasing production of new 2dLts.

  • But this produces more 2dLts than you really need. These officers need time with the troops, so you march them off to platoon leader type billets.

  • Because the number of Lt billet in troop leading positions is fixed by force structure considerations, your population of Lts now exceeds demand, so someone has to move out of their platoon leader billet to make room for the next guy. That means "2dLt New guy" replaces "Lt Short-time" who has been with his platoon a whopping 6 months.

  • "Lt Short-time" gets moved to an XO job followed shortly by a battalion/regimental/brigade job. His morale plummets because he joined the military to lead troops.

  • "New guy" is happy for 6-months, then "2dLt Newer guy" shows up fresh from school to replace him. And the cycle repeats itself.

The revolving billets are bad for the officers and the troops. Young officers need time in the mud as leaders. When they don't get this, they increasingly vote with their feet, thus fueling the officer shortage at the next grade, which powers the death spiral. It then becomes easy to assign the displaced platoon commanders they go to the staff billets vacated by resigning officers!

Unfortunately, keeping "Short-time" in place longer has a cost associated with it. Specifically, "New guy" and "Newer guy" may not get platoons. As combat arms officers without platoons, their career future is limited and moral plummets, so they exit at their first opportunity, thus perpetuating the shortage and deepening the spiral.

This problem, which is compounded by poor senior leadership as well as the many other ills you have previously mentioned, is not going away soon. Nor does it have an easy solution.

The one certain way to ensure that it remains is to ignore the problem, which is what Captain Damon suggests is happening. Until positive corrective action is taken, the personnel death spiral will continue to erode morale in our ranks and readiness in our forces.

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Chuck Spinney

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